The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity

If you Google 'exercise benefits' the results will include exercise's benefits to your mental health. This goes for youth and adults. But how do you know how much physical activity your kids are getting each week? What can you do to increase the amount of time they are physically active? Our partners at Children's Hospital Colorado have some tips on why movement matters in kids.

From Independence Day to the dog days, summer is a time for vacations, cookouts, campouts and outdoor fun with the whole family. It's also a great time for families to explore how to kids gets active, because there are many benefits of physical activity for kids. An active lifestyle not only helps physical health, but mental health too. That's important now more than ever, especially with mounting mental health concerns in children.

Kids aren’t getting enough exercise in school

Persistent cuts in curriculum have led to less and less physical education for kids all over the nation. In fact, here in Colorado, there’s no requirement for physical education in schools at all. Most kids in elementary school don’t have a daily gym class, and since it’s an elective in middle and high school, kids might opt out entirely.


As for recess, periods vary from district to district, but they’re rarely longer than 20 minutes (and are often less).


Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend kids get at least one hour of aerobic activity every day. This means activity that increases breathing and heart rate, like walking or swimming — including activity vigorous enough to get your child sweating and breathing hard at least three days a week. Since gym class isn’t going to meet that standard, it’s up to you to recognize the importance of physical play, encourage healthy habits and help your kids find activities they enjoy. Don’t worry, it’s easier than you might think.

No time for physical activity? No problem

“How do families as busy as mine make time for exercise?” It’s a common question. People often think of exercise as a scheduled, intense activity that has to be done in a single chunk. Not necessarily. Kids don’t have to do that hour a day of physical activity all at once. And if an hour isn’t possible, some activity is much better than none. Getting physically active can mean just walking briskly or taking the stairs. Both of these options are great for health. And, if done regularly, they may become healthy habits kids take with them into adulthood.


In fact, there are a lot of ways to work activity into existing routines. Try walking or biking to school with your kids, or if the school is too far, park a few blocks from the building and walk the rest of the way. You can also do activities in short bursts — a few push-ups, sit-ups or jumping jacks, even during commercial breaks while watching TV.


And speaking of TV, it’s best, when possible, to limit kids’ access to screens like computers, tablets and televisions. But you can even use screen time as a way to be active. For instance, there are many exercise-related games for consoles like Nintendo and PlayStation. And YouTube has tons of physical activity videos that are appropriate for all ages.

Mental health and exercise: why movement matters

Anyone who’s ever gone for a walk to shake off a hard day knows that a little exercise can do wonders for a bad mood. The fact is, when we work our muscles it makes us feel good, and studies increasingly show the mental health benefits of physical activity in the short and long term. The same is true for kids.


Research also shows that children who get even 20 minutes of moderate physical activity in their day show increased attention, comprehension and learning ability over children who don’t — meaning exercise can even help kids in school.


Healthy habits take a lot of effort to cultivate — and unhealthy ones a lot of effort to break. Some families find it helpful to sign a formal Commitment to a Healthy Life and post it as a reminder on the fridge. But whatever you do, just keep going. Before long, physical activity will work its way into the fabric of your family’s life.