The Mental Benefits of Physical Movement for Kids
Sports and physical activity provide kids physical benefits that are vital to development: improving cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength, and agility, all while setting kids up for healthy relationships with exercise as adults(1). But what about benefits for their mental health?
In the last few years, we have become increasingly aware of the importance of mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic cast a spotlight on issues that were either caused or amplified by isolation and loss of access to our favorite activities. Youth were among the most impacted, as they adjusted to learning virtually while not having sports leagues, parks or recreational facilities(2). By staying home, youth not only shrank their social connections, they also lost most of their opportunities to be active.
Research suggests increasing physical activity can be an important step towards improving mental health, particularly depression and anxiety(3). Staying active enhances learning and memory(4) and reduces stress(7), improving the likelihood of success in academics and athletics. Learn the types and amounts of activity recommended for youth by the U.S. Department of Health (starting on page 46).
While all types of movement provide youth physical and mental benefits, team sports have additional advantages due to their social and interactive nature. When facilitated by positive, supportive adults, team sports can improve self-esteem and social skills while also providing experience navigating challenging situations(5). Individuals who played team sports as adolescents were less likely to develop anxiety or depression in their 20s and 30s than peers who did not engage in these activities(6).
Team sports are incredibly important for today’s youth as they continue to navigate the pandemic. In a study conducted from January to June 2021(2), youth reported connections to school, peers and family were reduced due to extensive school closures and diminished activities, similar to trends from previous pandemics. This type of isolation can have substantial long-term mental health consequences if not addressed, which is why providing kids with as many pathways to be active as possible is so important, particularly options that include social connectivity.
Getting kids more active can be achieved in many ways, including:
- Helping your child find a team sport or activity that fits with their interests
- Scheduling active time with your child: walk the dog, go to the park
- Setting up spaces in your home or yard that encourage physical activity
- Providing time for kids to move during the day
- Perhaps most importantly, creating a safe space for children and teens to talk about mental health struggles, and working with them to find ways to feel better
For many youth, the loss of foundational social interaction and opportunities to be active has made this time particularly difficult, but physical activity and sports can be ways for kids to navigate through the pandemic and beyond.
- Jiménez-Pavón D, Carbonell-Baeza A, Lavie CJ. Physical exercise as therapy to fight against the mental and physical consequences of COVID-19 quarantine: Special focus in older people. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. 2020;63(3):386-388. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2020.03.009
- Jones SE. Mental health, suicidality, and connectedness among high school students during the covid-19 pandemic — adolescent behaviors and experiences survey, united states, January–June 2021. MMWR Suppl. 2022;71. doi:10.15585/mmwr.su7103a3
- Schuch FB, Vancampfort D. Physical activity, exercise, and mental disorders: it is time to move on. Trends Psychiatry Psychother. 2021;43:177-184. doi:10.47626/2237-6089-2021-0237
- Erickson KI, Hillman CH, Kramer AF. Physical activity, brain, and cognition. Current opinion in behavioral sciences. 2015 Aug 1;4:27-32.
- Eime RM, Young JA, Harvey JT, Charity MJ, Payne WR. A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavorial Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2013;10(1):98. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-10-98
- Easterlin MC, Chung PJ, Leng M, Dudovitz R. Association of team sports participation with long-term mental health outcomes among individuals exposed to adverse childhood experiences. JAMA Pediatrics. 2019;173(7):681-688. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1212
- Schultchen D, Reichenberger J, Mittl T, Weh TR, Smyth JM, Blechert J, Pollatos O. Bidirectional relationship of stress and affect with physical activity and healthy eating. British journal of health psychology. 2019 May;24(2):315-33.