How Exercise Can Help Kids with Their Mental Health

In today’s society it’s become quite common to see an increase in the use of technology, as well as time spent indoors, when considering how our children are spending their valuable time. Because of modern day tech advances, the rise of social media, and the day-to-day peer influence that continues to exist among children and adolescents, it’s alarming just how easily an inactive or unhealthy lifestyle can develop for our young ones.

Living an inactive or sedentary lifestyle carries tremendous risks for a child’s mental health and overall well-being. According to the World Health Organization (2020), 39 million children under the age of 5 were classified as overweight or obese. At the same time, rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders among children have also increased over time. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Ever having been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression among children aged 6–17 years increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and to 8.4% in 2011–2012” (2021).

So, what does exercise have to do with these numbers?

Well…a lot more than we may have initially thought!

Spreading awareness about the importance of physical activity and exercise for our children is crucial for their physical health, emotional well-being, and their overall development. Utilizing intentional parenting along with modeling healthy behaviors is critical for children of all ages to learn positive coping mechanisms and to become acquainted with healthy outlets of expression. Even if a child has an interest for physical activity and exercise on their own, they may face some challenges when it comes to getting started. And for more reasons than one.

Depending on the age, developmental stage, and unique personality of the child, there may be a need for some direction from mom or dad (or another adult) in order to get moving. If a child is lacking guidance and encouragement from their support system, they may slip into an inactive or sedentary lifestyle more easily. As a result of a less active lifestyle, children may experience undesirable mood changes, heightened emotional responses, weight fluctuations, unhealthy sleeping patterns, and/or disruptions to their appetite.

Oftentimes, parents find themselves juggling so much during the day that there’s little room left over for scheduling physical activities and exercise. Between challenging work schedules, caring for a household, checking (and re-checking) homework, and preparing a somewhat nutritious dinner, there’s a hefty amount of pressure—and time restraints!—that prove challenging for parents. An hour or two of video games or Facetiming with a friend can feel a lot less demanding than gearing up the entire crew for an evening walk or embarking on a game of “I spy” inside of a disaster-filled house. We get it. We’re human. But once you become familiarized with ways to incorporate daily doses of exercise that’ll benefit your child’s physical and mental health, it’ll soon feel like second-nature. You may even ask yourself…what took us so long to get started?

Ways Exercise Can Help Kids with Their Mental Health

Per the American Psychological Association (2020), young people who exercise are more likely to experience lower levels of depression, anxiety, and daily stress; engaging in forms of exercise also encourages a positive self-image and an overall feeling of life satisfaction. 

Let’s take a look at the various ways exercise can help our kids with their mental health—for the short-term and for years to come.

  • Increased Focus and Academic Performance
  • Improved Mood, Sleep Patterns and Appetite
  • Improved Behavior in School and at Home
  • Development of Healthy Coping Mechanisms
  • Increased Confidence and Social Skills (e.g., communicating with others, regulating emotions, problem-solving)
  • Decreased Symptoms of Anxiety and/or Depression  
  • Enhanced Immune Responses, Ease of Mobility, and Physical Health (all of which may promote a more positive self-image)

(APA, 2020).

*Remember that it may take time to see all the benefits of exercise come to fruition for a child. As always, it’s important to consult a mental health professional if your child is currently experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. Remain patient (and consistent) when introducing new forms of exercise and physical activity with your children.

Getting the family on track with a healthy lifestyle may be easier than you realize. It may just take a bit of planning and reprioritizing. Remember to start slow: 5 to 10 minutes of light exercise per day as a family can set a great foundation for building up to longer periods. Ideally, you’ll want to aim for 15 to 30 minutes of exercise per day once you’re more comfortable. When you begin to notice the benefits of exercise on your child’s physical and mental health, you’ll be eager to continue with this new healthy lifestyle for years to come.

Happy moving!

By: Shannon Bussnick, LSW

References

American Psychological Association. (2020). How and why to get children moving now. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/children-exercise-strategies.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 22). Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html.

World Health Organization. (2020). Obesity and overweight. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight#:~:text=The%20prevalence%20of%20overweight%20and,19%25%20of%20boys%20were%20overweight.