What are the mental health benefits of exercise for children?

Regular physical activity is vital for helping kids stay physically healthy, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that their mental health can benefit from getting moving too. Here are four important mental health benefits of exercise for children.

1. Exercise can prevent depression and stress in children

A review of 114 studies found that children who exercise have lower levels of depression and stress than those who don’t exercise. Self-esteem, life satisfaction and overall happiness was also higher in the kids who exercised than in those who did not. More research is needed to fully understand why exercise is so beneficial and how different age groups respond to physical activity. However, the review concluded that promoting exercise and reducing sedentary behaviour could help to protect mental health in teens and children over the age of six.

2. Exercise supports socialising

Many forms of exercise involve a social aspect, and frequent socialising is vital for good mental health. Having a strong support network and sense of community is incredibly valuable for preventing stress and low mood. 

Team sporting activities can be particularly good for helping children make friends and develop their communication skills. When they play as part of a team, kids can learn to respect and trust their teammates, coaches, umpires and opponents. Exercise can also help families to spend more quality time together. Family walks, bike rides or online exercise classes are a great way to get parents and kids socialising and reconnecting with one another during busy work and school schedules.

3. Exercise can improve behaviour, focus and self-control

There’s lots of research to support the idea that exercise can help children focus and regulate themselves. Kids can more easily pay attention to a topic soon after being physically active, but they also tend to perform better academically when they exercise on a regular basis. This might be particularly useful for neurodivergent children who have difficulty focusing their attention and self-regulating. Regular exercise seems to improve executive function, problem-solving and self-control, all of which can help neurodivergent children to keep stress at bay.

4. Exercise supports healthy sleep

When kids get plenty of physical activity, they’re more likely to burn off excess energy and get good quality sleep each night. Sleep is incredibly important for physical and mental health. Inadequate sleep or a poor sleep schedule can leave children vulnerable to low mood or behaviour problems. When kids exercise regularly, they can more easily fall into a natural sleep pattern that helps protect their mental health.

Encourage regular exercise to support your child’s mental health

The links between exercise and mental health are clear. Regular physical activity is vital for keeping stress, depression, anxiety and other psychological concerns at bay. When we encourage children to exercise on a regular basis, we help them to protect their mental health and set them up for a happy future by instilling good habits in them while they are young.