MONTREAL -- Boys who are physically active in early childhood report better mental health and are more likely to still be physically active in early adolescence, according to a new study by two Montreal researchers.

In particular, these boys were less likely to grow up with symptoms of depression and anxiety or emotional distress.

"What we found was that boys who participated in physical activities in early childhood, at age five, were the ones who had better mental health when compared to boys who did not participate in physical activities," summarized Marie-Josée Harbec, who conducted the research as part of her doctoral thesis directed by Linda Pagani, a professor of psychoeducation at the Université de Montréal.

Physical activity in preschool could help boys develop life skills such as initiative, teamwork and self-control, the researchers believe.

It could also help them develop meaningful and supportive relationships with their peers and the adults who coach and teach them.

The two researchers examined the sport and physical activity habits reported by children at ages five and 12, as well as their parents.

They also looked at symptoms of emotional distress between the ages of six and 10 noted by the children's teachers. Their cohort consisted of just over 1,400 young people.

"We didn't find any significant results in our analyses for girls," Harbec said. "That doesn't mean there aren't benefits to physical activity on girls' mental health, it means there may be something else that explains why girls who are more active don't necessarily have fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms."

Boys who are physically active at a very young age are sort of caught in a "cycle" of still being active in their early teens, she added.

So, the message for parents is to get their kids active. And it doesn't have to be field hockey five times a week either, the researchers say, a hike in the mountains or a bike ride will do just fine.

"Play outside and try to keep your child away from screens as much as possible," said Harbec. "Get them used to moving early. It's not necessarily about saying 'no' to screen time, but vary the activities, and especially the physical ones. Human beings are creatures of habit, and the desire to move can be learned."

Parents also need to understand that it's important for them to set an example, she adds.

At age five, it is very rare that a child does not want to go out and have fun.

"The chances of success will be even greater if mom and dad go out with him, and the whole family will benefit," concluded the researchers.

The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from McGill University and the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.

The findings were published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioural Pediatrics

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 27, 2021.