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Exercise Can Help the Mental Health of Kids

by Natasha Tracy  -  October 17th, 2016

Exercise Can Help the Mental Health of Kids

Most people know that adults need to work to maintain their mental health but few realize mental health is important in kids, too. While some think that childhood is entirely a feel-good time, it’s actually the case that about one in five children have a mental health challenge. In fact, millions of American children struggle with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, Tourette syndrome and many other mental health concerns.

This leaves many asking how can the mental health of children be protected. There are many answers to this, and one thing that can help the mental health of kids is exercise.

SEE ALSO: Other posts on Parenting Board

How Big is the Problem of Mental Health Challenges in Children?

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from data collected between 2005 and 2011 shows the following.

Of children aged 3-17 years, the following currently had:

• ADHD (6.8%)

• Behavioral or conduct problems (3.5%)

• Anxiety (3.0%)

• Depression (2.1%)

• Autism spectrum disorders (1.1%)

• Tourette syndrome (0.2%) (among children aged 6–17 years)

Of adolescents aged 12–17 years, the following had:

• And illicit drug use disorder in the past year (4.7%)

• An alcohol use disorder in the past year (4.2%)

• A cigarette dependence in the past month (2.8%)

And, tragically, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 12-17 years old. Suicide is known to be as a result of mental disorders and other factors.

Exercise and the Mental Health of Kids

There are studies that link mental health to exercise in kids.

In a nine-month after school exercise program, brain function in children aged 7-9 was shown to be improved via electroencephalogram (EEG); and those children who participated in more exercise, showed greater improvements.

Exercise has also been shown to help kids with ADHD. In fact, after just one, 20-minute session of aerobic activity, kids with ADHD showed greater attention, greater reading comprehension and better performance on arithmetic tests. Not only were these improvements seen in children with ADHD, but in children without this diagnosis improvements were also seen.

This was a small but promising study.

Exercise and Depression in Children

Exercise has been known to treat adults with depression for some time so interest in exercise for children with depression has gained recent attention.

The first thing investigated was the correlation between exercise in children and levels of depression. A study of 8256 children and adolescents (with an average age of 11.5) bore this association out. In this self-report study, in which 33% of these youths had medium-high depression symptoms, it was found that depressive symptoms were lower in those who:

• Had greater opportunity to be involved in a sport or other activities at school outside of class

• Were very active during physical education classes

• Played on sports teams both at school and outside of school

Children/adolescents who were physically active at least 60 minutes per day and those who had lower levels of leisure-time screen use (video game, computer, television) were also less likely to have depressive symptoms.

Another study conducted over 17 years in more than 700 teens found that exercise was not a predictor of future depression. In other words, exercise in adolescence does not appear to protect against future depression.

Other Mental Health Benefits of Exercise in Children

In a 2013 report, the following two recommendations were made to build a better school environment for youth with mental health and addiction issues:

1. Improve communication and respect between youth and those in leadership roles in order for youth to effectively step into their own and be empowered.

2. Provide youth with increased support and compassion from peers to reduce feelings of isolation.

It’s not hard to see how increased exercise – particularly in the area of sports – can help address these recommendations and, thus, improve the mental health of children.

The Final Word on Mental Health and Exercise for Kids

While no single study proves that exercise will improve the mental health of kids entirely and no study proves that it will protect them from mental health challenges as adults, what these studies do seem to say is that helping children’s mental health aids them, at least, in their childhood and adolescence. That should certainly be enough motivation to make exercise a priority.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Children’s Mental Health Report. 2013.

Children’s Mental Health Ontario, Building a Better School Environment for Youth with Mental Health and Addiction Issues. 2013.

Wagner, MD, Mental Health Benefits of Exercise in Children. 2015.


Natasha Tracey is a professional writer and author for Bipolar Burble. She currently worked as a freelancer for Kingsblog.

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The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.
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