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June 23, 2024

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Exercise: It’s Great for Your Child’s Mental Health

Show your kids how important it is to take care of themselves starting from an early age.

With the current focus on childhood mental health, recent research sheds new light on the psychological benefits of exercise for kids. Moms and dads know that when we get even a little exercise we feel better. But we need reminding of what’s good for ourselves. Diet, exercise and consistency are so fleeting. We can help our children out by showing them how important it is to take care of themselves starting from an early age.


Recent research on the link between physical activity and depression risk in adults suggests that exercise can offset a genetic tendency toward depression. That’s huge. Further, research shows that adults with genetic risks who exercise regularly are no more likely to develop depression than those without the genetic likelihood. Even better, this association holds in adolescents, a group with a generally high risk of depression. So starting kids off toward good mental health begins with regular physical activity in their lives from an early age.


The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend kids get at least one hour of aerobic activity every day. For many busy working parents, that sounds like a tall order. Especially when the kids prefer video games to physical activity. But you can try adding a fitness workout for your kids to their gaming schedule — with fair warning! You can inspire a new fitness strategy for your kids at home. Because most kids don’t get anywhere near 60 minutes of aerobic activity a day.


A study published in the March, 2020 issue of the journal The Lancet Psychiatry found that light activity is linked to better mental health as kids get older. Researchers studied the activity of kids ages 12, 14 and 16 who were also assessed for depression at age 18. The study found that total physical activity dropped between ages 12 and 16. Activity levels when kids were younger were linked to their mental health later on. Depression scores at age 18 were lower for every additional 60 minutes per day of light activity at ages 12, 14 and 16. Depression levels were higher for every additional sedentary hour.


Want to reduce your child’s sedentary time? Be firm. Insist on more physical activity for your family and participate, too. Offer suggestions such as, “Hey, we’re all taking a walk after dinner.” Or, “We need to all pick up the branches from last night’s storm,” etc. Weave threads of activity into your children’s lives to build better mental health. Encourage your kids to play outside, ride bikes, participate in sports both intramurally and competitively and more. Seek out real ways to get them moving. And explore fitness opportunities in the area; check out our Nashville Parent’s fitness directories.


Research also shows that some exercise is better than no exercise. In a 2019 U.S. study of 35,000 children ages 6 to 17, it was found that those who reported no exercise were twice as likely to have mental health problems. There is a strong correlation with lower rates of anxiety and depression when kids exercise just three days a week. Good sleep duration and extracurricular activities are related to good mental health. In fact, physical activity may improve sleep quality, which is closely linked to mental health.


Studies show that being on a sports team is associated with an extra improvement in mental health — beyond what was associated with the physical activity — and it was particularly strong for girls.
   A 2019 study out of the University of California at Los Angeles shows that engaging in team sports can actually help kids ward off depression. The study looked at data on 9,668 children. Researchers found that children who were exposed to adverse childhood experiences reported better mental health as adults if they had participated in team sports as children.


Through team sports activity, kids learn how to lead and negotiate with other kids to reach a common goal. If a child is struggling with emotional regulation or interacting with others, the structured setting of team sports helps to create a safe environment for learning important social skills. And learning these skills in childhood can lead to more positive experiences in the future. Researchers — all of them medical doctors — concluded that having your kids in structured social activities where they can learn and be safe are very positive influences later on in life.


Activity that increases breathing and heart rate — including activity vigorous enough to get your child sweating and breathing hard at least three days a week — will do the trick. Since P.E. class isn’t going to meet that standard, it’s up to you to recognize the importance of physical play, encourage healthy habits and help your kids find activities they enjoy whether it’s on a team sport, at a gym or at home streaming.
It’s easier than you might think. Exercise is good, activity is important and moderate activity of any kind — getting out and doing something — is associated with improvements, lower levels of depressive symptoms, lower levels of anxiety and better well-being.
    That’s good news for the new year.



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