Children and physical activity: building strong bodies and even stronger minds
Physical activity is an essential part of any young person’s development. It strengthens a child’s muscles and bones, helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces the risk of a wide range of health issues, including diabetes, obesity, cancer and more.
But it’s not just the body that benefits from physical activity. In recent years, we’ve come to understand that exercise can also have a significant impact on the mental health and cognitive function of children and adults alike.
Children aren’t getting as much physical activity as they need
Despite the critical role physical activity plays in a child’s development, research indicates that the majority of youths don’t get enough daily exercise. An investigation published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that just 30 percent of primary, junior middle and junior high school children in China get the recommended 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
There are a number of societal factors to blame for this trend. The rising demand to be academically successful means that many children are encouraged to neglect physical activity in favour of focusing on studying, while sedentary video games often consume the precious free time that children do get. At the same time, growing concerns about the safety of local neighbourhoods has made many parents hesitant to allow their children to play outdoors.
Encouraging children to be more active isn’t always easy, but the advantages are clear. Read on to learn more about how regular physical activity can help your children feel more confident, enhance their cognitive abilities and improve their mental wellbeing.
Strong in body, strong in mind
Increasing a child’s physical activity can help your children succeed academically. Research shows that regularly engaging in exercise at a moderate intensity promotes growth of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is involved with learning, emotions and memory.
In an investigation published in Pediatrics, researchers set out to explore the effects of physical activity on brain and cognitive function. They divided 221 children aged seven to nine years into two groups: a control group and a group that attended a nine-month after-school physical activity program. After nine months had passed, researchers found that the children in the activity group had a better attention span and faster mental processing speed than the children in the control group.
Some parents fear that enrolling their children in physical activity programs takes away time that could be spent studying. However, it’s clear that children who receive a balanced education that encompasses aspects of both the mind and body are often better equipped to succeed inside the classroom and out.
Building self-esteem and confidence
Every parent wants their child to feel empowered. Developing positive and healthy self-esteem helps children feel not only that they deserve love, happiness and success, but they can handle whatever challenges life throws their way.
Physical activity is a proven way to help build a child’s self-confidence. A study published in Health Education Research found that adolescents who participated in sports clubs enjoyed a greater sense of wellbeing, including better social skills and reduced feelings of anxiety, and generally felt more energised and happier about their lives.
It’s easy to see why. Whether they’re running around with friends or participating in a structured sport, physical activity teaches children new skills and helps them cultivate a sense of strength, autonomy and independence. Some aspects of sport and exercise can also be seen as a healthy challenge - activities that may seem difficult or insurmountable at first slowly become feasible, then possible, then simple - which can help children get a better understanding of their untapped potential in other areas of their life.
Reducing depressive symptoms
Depression is a common issue among Chinese adolescents. More than 1 in 7 children from urban areas and more than 1 in 5 children from rural regions experience depressive symptoms, according to an investigation published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
While working out won’t exactly cure depression, it has long been known that exercise can help adults alleviate some of the symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. Now, scientists are exploring whether children may also benefit in the same way.
In a 2017 Norwegian study, researchers tracked the physical activity and depressive symptoms of almost 800 six-year-olds over the course of a few years. They found that the children who engaged in more moderate to vigorous physical activity showed fewer depressive symptoms at ages eight and 10.
“I think that physicians, parents and policy makers should facilitate physical activity among children,” says Tonje Zahl, the study’s lead author, as quoted by Time. “The focus should be on physical activity not just for the here and now benefits, such as improving blood pressure, heart rate and other physical benefits, but for the mental health benefits over the long term.”
Encouraging an active lifestyle from an early age
Regardless of age, engaging in regular exercise is an essential part of a balanced lifestyle. Encouraging children to be more physically active in their day-to-day life is vital for building a healthy foundation from an early age. By regularly taking part in physical activity, children are better able to develop the self-confidence, mental fortitude and autonomy they need to excel in the years ahead.