By: Sharnay Botha & Dr Eileen Africa, Stellenbosch Kinderkinetics
A physically active child is a healthy child - not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. In recent years, there has been a growing concern about children’s overall health and development due to the popularity of video games, computers and mobile phones, as well as an increased demand on children’s academic performance. These factors cause increased anxiety, depression and mood swings in children (Zahl et al., 2017).
During childhood and adolescence, there is a period of rapid growth and development. This is categorised by the formation of self-concept and certain behaviour patterns. It is therefore important to establish healthy physical and mental habits to ensure that these habits are carried into adulthood (Lubans et al., 2016).
Studies have shown that children who participate in regular exercise have improved behaviour, which leads to better relationships. And any movement, at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity, is associated with increased health benefits for children. Consequently, being physically active for at least 60 minutes per day, and limiting leisure screen-time, can decrease undesirable behaviours as well as symptoms of depression (Kremer et al., 2014; Lubans et al., 2016; Zahl et al., 2017).
Psychological benefits of exercise
Build confidence and self-esteem: Exercising can help children feel more confident and secure in their abilities. Children learn new skills and improve their overall physical strength, agility and balance (Aboutkidshealth, 2020). This will increase their sense of accomplishment and perceived competence and they learn to appreciate what their bodies can do (Lubans et al., 2016).
Reduces anxiety and depression: Exercise helps children feel more relaxed and happier. The reason? Exercise increases the release of endorphins and serotonin. This gives children a feeling of happiness and reduces overall stress (Lubans et al., 2016; Zahl et al., 2017).
Increases cognitive skills and academic performance: According to Aboutkidshealth (2020), exercise also leads to better thinking and problem-solving skills and to overall improved attention. Research has also shown that being more active contributes to improved academic performance and that gross motor skills such as bilateral coordination, upper-limb coordination and balance can enhance spelling and reading skills (Botha & Africa, 2020).
Improving sleep: Another great benefit of exercise for children, is improved sleep. Exercise minimises the psychological effects of stress on sleep and prevents the disruption of children’s built-in circadian rhythm. Also, children who are more active spend less time in front of screens. This means that they are less exposed to the blue light from screens, which has been found to disrupt sleep. When children get enough sleep, they are less stressed and experience less mood swings, which contributes to their overall psychological health (Lubans et al., 2016).
Improve social skills: Exercise allows children to become part of a team or community which can give them a sense of belonging. Participating in different sports and physical activity also teaches children various social skills like teamwork, communication and leadership (Aboutkidshealth, 2020).
How much exercise is enough?
Various studies have been done to determine how much exercise, and what type of exercise, is sufficient for improved mental health. The overall conclusion is that moderate physical activity, of any kind, is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety (McMahon et al., 2015). Exercising outdoors, however, has been found to be great for children as it increases their levels of Vitamin D, which is associated with decreased levels of depression and sadness (Nair & Maseeh, 2012).
The best way to encourage your child to be more active is to lead by example and instil the habit of exercise. Exercise with them, whether it involves jumping on the trampoline, riding a bike or playing catch, whatever you can do to get your child moving! It is important to make it fun as this will teach your child that exercise is enjoyable and can make them feel good.
Aboutkidshealth, 2020, Physical activity: Benefits of exercise for health and wellbeing, viewed 6 July 2020, https://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/article?contentid=641&language=english.
Botha, S. and Africa, E.K. (2020). The Effect of a Perceptual-Motor Intervention on the Relationship Between Motor Proficiency and Letter Knowledge. Early Childhood Education Journal, 1-11.
Kremer, P., Elshaug, C., Leslie, E., Toumbourou, J.W., Patton, G.C. and Williams, J. (2014). Physical activity, leisure-time screen use and depression among children and young adolescents. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 17(2), pp.183-187.
Lubans, D., Richards, J., Hillman, C., Faulkner, G., Beauchamp, M., Nilsson, M., Kelly, P., Smith, J., Raine, L. and Biddle, S. (2016). Physical activity for cognitive and mental health in youth: a systematic review of mechanisms. Pediatrics, 138(3).
McMahon, E.M., Corcoran, P., O’Regan, G., Keeley, H., Cannon, M., Carli, V., Wasserman, C., Hadlaczky, G., Sarchiapone, M., Apter, A. and Balazs, J. (2017). Physical activity in European adolescents and associations with anxiety, depression and well-being. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 26(1), pp.111-122.
Nair, R., & Maseeh, A. (2012). Vitamin D: The "sunshine" vitamin. Journal of pharmacology & pharmacotherapeutics, 3(2), 118–126.
Zahl, T., Steinsbekk, S. and Wichstrøm, L. (2017). Physical activity, sedentary behavior, and symptoms of major depression in middle childhood. Pediatrics, 139(2).