Developmental coordination disorder, physical activity and mental health in children

  • John Cairney Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto
  • Yao-Chuen Li Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University
  • Sara King-Dowling INCH Lab, Department of Family Medicine, McMaster University


Developmental coordination disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting about 5 percent of all children. The diagnosis is made when children present with motor ability significantly lower than that expected for their age, when a direct link between poor motor ability and limitations in activities of daily living and/or poor academic performance can be made, and when children do not have an existing neurological condition (e.g., cerebral palsy) that would better explain their poor motor coordination. Previous research has shown interesting lines of potentially intersecting findings: first, children with DCD are at much greater risk of overweight/obesity and have much lower rates of physical activity and participation in organized sport when compared to typically developing children. Second, children with DCD are also at greater risk for poor mental health outcomes, especially depression and anxiety. Given known associations between physical activity and mental health in other populations, we should be designing and testing interventions targeting physical activity in children with motor coordination difficulties that have the potential to increase psychological well-being as well as physical health. In this presentation, we review the literature showing links between DCD, physical inactivity and internalizing problems (i.e., depression and anxiety) in children and adolescents. We will also present a recent model – the Environmental Stress Hypothesis - and the growing body of studies, which examine the mechanisms linking motor coordination problems and physical activity to mental health problems in children and adolescents.