Physical activity contributes to healthy body composition, reduces the risks of chronic diseases, and improves health status 1. It includes a wide range of activities ranging from sports to household activities (e.g. house cleaning). In addition to the many physical health benefits, exercise and physical activity strongly impact youth mental health, specifically relating to fear, depression, and anxiety 2. Despite this, only 25% percent of children ages 6-17 years old participate in the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity 3. COVID exacerbated this trend, resulting in a decrease of 17 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day 4. One approach to improving our youth’s physical, emotional, and mental health would be to engage them in more purposeful physical activity, otherwise known as exercise and fitness.
Gipson (2021) and Garst, et al (2020) found that exercise can positively impact youth’s emotional and mental health by increasing overall well-being and reducing the risk of depression, a mental disorder that impacts approximately 2.7 million children aged 3-17 nationwide 1, 5. Specifically, physical activity settings that draw out and actualize children’s natural and inherent capabilities can increase confidence, resilience, and empowerment 6.
- Confidence – children and teens build self-assurance, positive self-esteem, and the willingness to try new things as they develop and learn new skills, movements, and techniques, particularly during resistance-based activity and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that uses repeated short, intense bursts of exercise alternated with periods of rest and recovery 6, 7.
- Resilience – in addition to confidence, engaging in fitness and participating in sports encourages kids to work on overcoming obstacles so that they can persevere through new or hard situations in and out of the gym 6, 7.
- Empowered – exercise and sports provide many chances to learn positive self-talk, new skills, new concepts, set new best records, and reflect on the physical and mental challenges they’ve overcome 6, 7, 11.
These traits contribute to an overall sense of self-determination, which is the ability to make choices for oneself and reflect a high degree of control over their life. Youth with strong self-determination demonstrate greater self-advocacy, responsibility, and goal-setting skills 6, 8, 9, 11.
In addition to the physical and psychological benefits, exercise offers many opportunities for children to play, interact, and engage in conflict resolution with their peers.
- Self-Regulation– exercise has been associated with significant improvements towards impulse control, ability to wait, decreased hyperactivity, and increased attention 8, 9.
- Community and Belonging – participating in group fitness or team sports increases social engagement, social inclusion, and citizenship 12 which encourages and enhances collaboration, communication, and teamwork skills 6, 7, 8.
Studies have shown that exercise positively impacts academic outcomes and performance in addition to overall enjoyment and well-being 13, 14.
- Enjoyment – offering opportunities for children to be physically active and take movement breaks during the school day can increase their overall enjoyment of school and physical activity 14.
- Executive functioning – exercise can improve and enhance cognitive skills such as inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and verbal and visual working memory, which are needed for tasks such as self-control, planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions, and multi-tasking 7, 10, 11
Our health matters now more than ever, and exercise and fitness are great tools to positively impact this. You can help improve youth’s physical, emotional, and mental health by integrating daily movement breaks throughout the day, being a role model to demonstrate the importance of exercise, and engaging in fitness together!
Programs supporting youth mental health through exercise and fitness:
For resources on engaging youth in exercise and fitness, visit these sites:
- Society of Health and Physical Educators: SHAPE America
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Healthy Children
- Action for Healthy Kids
- CrossFit Kids Training Guide
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Benefits of Physical Activity.
2 Samji, H., Wu, J., Ladak, A., Vossen, C., Stewart, E., Dove, N., Long, D. and Snell, G. (2022), Review: Mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and youth – a systematic review. Child Adolescent Mental Health, 27: 173-189. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12501
3 Katzmarzyk, P. T., Denstel, K. D., Beals, K., Carlson, J., Crouter, S. E., McKenzie, T. L., Pate, R. R., Sisson, S. B., Staiano, A. E., Stanish, H., Ward, D. S., Whitt-Glover, M., & Wright, C. (2018). Results from the United States 2018 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 15(s2), S422-S424. Retrieved Aug 31, 2022, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jpah/15/s2/article-pS422.xml
4 Wunsch K, Kienberger K, Niessner C. Changes in Physical Activity Patterns Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022; 19(4):2250. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19042250
5 Gipson, C.M., Malcom, N.L., Rundio, A. & Hunt, T. (2021). “Learn how to keep going”: Applying strengths perspective and hope theory to girls in CrossFit. Journal of Sport for Development. Retrieved from https://jsfd.org/2022/02/01/learn-how-to-keep-going-applying-strengths-perspective-and-hope-theory-to-girls-in-crossfit/
6 Garst, Barry A., Edmond P. Bowers, and Lauren E. Stephens. “A Randomized Study of CrossFit Kids for Fostering Fitness and Academic Outcomes in Middle School Students.” Evaluation and Program Planning 83 (December 2020): 101856. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2020.101856.
7 Hale, Gabrielle E., Luke Colquhoun, Deborah Lancastle, Nicky Lewis, and Philip J. Tyson. “Review: Physical Activity Interventions for the Mental Health and Well‐being of Adolescents – a Systematic Review.” Child and Adolescent Mental Health 26, no. 4 (November 2021): 357–68. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12485.
8 Rosario, Kristinelli Del, Nicole Lotilla, and Jasper Vincent Alontaga. “Improving Self-Regulation Skills of Preschool Students Through CrossFit Activities.” Advanced Science Letters 24, no. 11 (November 1, 2018): 7862–65. https://doi.org/10.1166/asl.2018.12444.
9 McCarthy, M. K., Harris, B. S., & Gregg, K. (2022). The Effectiveness of Teaching Life Skills Through Sport-based Interventions for Youth at Risk. National Youth Advocacy and Resilience Journal, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.20429/nyarj.2022.050201
10 Bedard, C., St John, L., Bremer, E., Graham, J. D., & Cairney, J. (2019). A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effects of physically active classrooms on educational and enjoyment outcomes in school-age children. PloS one, 14(6), e0218633.
11 Biddle, S. J., Ciaccioni, S., Thomas, G., & Vergeer, I. (2019). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: An updated review of reviews and an analysis of causality. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 42, 146-155
Erin Comollo, Ed.D., Program Development Administrator, New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative