Physical activity: Benefits of exercise for health and wellbeing

 

Regular physical activity helps your child develop in ​a range of ways. Not only does it help their physical health, it also helps improve brain function and your child’s emotional wellbeing.

Benefits of activity for physical health

Regular physical activity helps develop your child’s movement skills. It also, of course, helps bones become stronger and builds a healthy heart and stronger muscles. Physical activity also helps your child keep a healthy body weight.

Moderate intensity exercise can even help to relieve some chronic (long-term) pain conditions by maintaining physical function and decreasing fatigue.

Aside from providing general physical benefits, regular activity can also help ease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome in girls. This is because moderate exercise helps the body produce hormones called endorphins. These are natural painkillers that can ease abdominal and back pain as well as improve mood.

Benefits of activity for brain function

While it may not seem obvious, physical activity plays an important role in developing the brain and supporting essential mental functions.

Research shows that regular moderate intensity exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory. Exercise also helps release growth factors, chemicals in the brain that affect the growth and survival of new brain cells as well as blood vessels in the area.

Exercise leads to improved motor skills (such as hand-eye co-ordination), better thinking and problem-solving, stronger attention skills and improved learning. Not surprisingly, these all combine to benefit school performance. In fact, even the simple act of playing outside with friends, setting non-academic goals and seeing progress can help the brain refocus when it comes time for school work.

Benefits of activity for emotional and mental health

If your child has depression or anxiety, or even just an “off” day, exercise may be the last thing on their mind. However, physical activity can help greatly with maintaining mental wellbeing. The endorphins that the brain releases during exercise help to improve mood, energy levels and even sleep. Together, these positive effects help to improve self-confidence and resilience.

Exercise can:

  • reduce anxiety
  • improve relationships
  • improve body image.

Reduced anxiety

People who experience heightened anxiety tend to focus on anxiety-inducing things, which in turn makes them more anxious, so creating a vicious cycle. But, through exercise, an anxious child can break the cycle by focusing on the demands of the physical activity, developing new skills and achieving a sense of accomplishment. See your doctor if your child shows any signs and symptoms of anxiety.

Improved relationships

If a child or teen is feeling lonely and unable to make friends, shared physical activities can give them a sense of belonging and companionship. A child or teen with social anxiety​ might find it difficult to be in a group environment, but a particular focus, such as a sport, may relieve some of the social pressure. Over time, the act of sharing experiences with others, developing rapport and working towards common goals can help a child focus and develop the confidence to speak up in class. It can also help foster friendships in school if the activities are school-based.

Improved body image

When your child sees how fun it is to be able to dance, jump, walk, run, stretch and play they are more likely to want to continue enjoying being active throughout their life. Seeing and appreciating what their body can do, rather than how it looks, is a great way for a child to build a positive body image. It is important to help your child develop this awareness as early as possible and to play your part in promoting a healthy body image through your own behaviour.

The desire to look lean or muscular often becomes stronger during the pre-teen and teen years. Your child is less likely to take any harmful paths towards a so-called physical ideal if they have a healthy perception of what ‘looking good’ means, and understand that it comes from healthy, balanced habits that started in their early years.

Key points

  • Physical activity keeps the body strong and healthy and improves mental health by decreasing depression, anxiety, pain and loneliness.
  • Physical activity also improves focus, school performance, sleep and energy levels.
  • Those who undertake regular physical activity enjoy improved relationships and a more positive body image.

Further resources

​Canadian Paediatric Society (2012). Physical activity for children and youth.

Canadian Paediatric Society (2011). Physical activity for children and youth with a chronic illness.

Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (2016). Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth: An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Sleep​. ​

Godman, H. (2014). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harvard Medical School.​

Tremblay, M.S. et al (2012). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years (aged 0 – 4 years).​​

Sharon Alexander, BSc, BEd, MEd​

Suneeta Monga, MD, FRCPC​​​

7/18/2016
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