It has long been known that physical education teaches children about fitness and encourages them to live a healthy lifestyle. Now a Tel Aviv University researcher has statistical evidence that sports participation is also beneficial to a child’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral well-being.

In her study, Keren Shahar, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University’s Bob Shapell School of Social Work, reported that a continuous program of various sports helped improve self-control and discipline and lowered feelings of aggression in children.

Her study included 649 children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We set out to determine whether sports training would have a positive impact on these children by lowering aggression, and how this result can be achieved,” explains Shahar. It would be more effective than verbal therapy, she says, because while verbal therapy encourages children to control their behavior, research indicates that it does not reduce negative emotions. The introduction of sport, however, is able to reduce aggressive behavior as a result of quelling negative emotions.

Girls had a weaker response to sports programming than their male classmates, Shahar’s research showed. Trying to explain this result, Shahar says that girls do not often suffer from the same aggression problems as boys.

But the research still applies, Shahar adds. The key is to introduce children to something that they love to do and in which they have a compelling interest. “Find something that motivates them,” she says. A strong connection with any activity gives children a sense of purpose and decreases the likelihood that they will “act out” their behavioral problems.