Written by Laura Le, LCSW
This post is the second in a series on the connection between physical health and mental wellness. Look for future posts on this connection in the coming months!
A pervasive message in our culture is that Americans are not getting enough exercise—you and I aren’t, and our children aren’t. Even though most of us know we and our children should be more active, many of us struggle to do so. Below, find information on how exercise can help children cope with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and ADHD, as well as strategies for incorporating more exercise into daily life.
How Exercise Helps
The mental health benefits of exercise are well-researched and commonly accepted among most mental health and health professionals. Additionally, many Americans know that moderate physical activity releases feel-good chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Specifically, exercise creates new neurons in the brain and releases a specific chemical called GABA, which improves symptoms of both anxiety and depression. This link was most recently studied by researchers at the University of California at Davis Medical Center. Another set of chemicals that exercise can trigger are called serotonin and dopamine. According to John Ratey at Harvard University, these brain chemicals can have a similar impact on children as medications such as Adderall or Ritalin. For people who struggle with anxiety, the sensations of breathing fast and of a fast-beating heart that come with exercise can mimic the feeling of anxiety and panic that they experience. In that sense, exercise can serve as a way to expose children to these feelings in a safe way and help them practice having and managing these sensations. Additionally, several studies in the academic journal Psychosomatic Medicine by James Blumenthal linked exercise to improving depressed mood and preventing relapse back into depression.
While consistent exercise reduces stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression, a study widely reported (from the New York Times to Shape Magazine) in October 2016 found that exercising while intensely upset increased the risk of a heart attack by three times. These studies were done on adults, so there are no data for children; however, it is no longer recommended to exercise while mad. Rather, learning and practicing relaxation techniques throughout the day and week, when already calm, are a physically healthier way to manage anger, stress, or frustration.
How to Get Moving
So how can you help your child or teen reap the benefits of these brain chemicals and improve their mood, focus, attention, and well-being? Here are some ideas to try.
Match your natural rhythm
While exercising after school can be a good outlet after sitting in school all day, the afternoon is not the only option. One family I know wakes up a little early so that they can ride bikes or scooters before school. Regardless of what time of day works best for your family, try to keep the time consistent so that physical activity becomes part of the daily routine.
Exercise as a family. Walking around the neighborhood together can help facilitate conversation and allow families to reconnect after a busy day or to connect before encountering the challenges of the day. Research out of Stanford University shows that being in nature has also been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Several researchers are now studying the impact of time in nature on ADHD symptoms. On the weekends, try packing a picnic lunch in a local park to combine family time and exercise. If you have time for a longer activity, look up a local hiking trail at www.traillink.com.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
Some parents struggle with their child or teen over screen time. Video games and YouTube videos are mentally stimulating and can be difficult to shift attention away from. Add to that a child or teen who does not like exercise, and increasing the amount of exercise can seem insurmountable. Some families in this situation embrace movement-based games like Pokémon Go, while others dust off their old Wii to encourage some physical activity for their reluctant exerciser.
Embrace a range of activities
Brainstorm with your child or teen about what “counts” as exercise and physical activity. Be creative. Just be sure your heart rate increases and you breathe harder, and sustain that effort! Some ideas? Gardening. Shopping. Sweeping/mopping/vacuuming (plus, you get a clean house!). Shoveling snow. Jumping on a trampoline. Hula hooping. Walking the dog. Doing a yoga or Pilates class or video. Jogging. Mowing the lawn. Playing an organized sport. Swimming. Dancing. Playing tag. Riding a bike or scooter. Using equipment at the gym. Playing at the park. Shooting hoops or playing catch in your driveway. Washing the car. Taking an exercise class at the gym. Raking leaves. Just be sure your child or teen enjoys the activity so that he or she continues to stay active.
Exercise alone is not a sufficient approach for someone struggling with anxiety, depression, or ADHD so much that it interferes with daily life. If your child or teen is having trouble, contact us to get support on integrating exercise into other effective treatments.