The first part of this series focused on busting the myth that kids shouldn’t do resistance training. In this follow-up piece, we’re extending the scope to the cognitive and emotional benefits that regular exercise provides for children. A Psychology Today article noted that 90 percent of Generation Z feel anxious and/or stressed out, and with the continuing aftereffects of COVID-19, mental health concerns are at an all-time high. Let’s look at how physical activity can be used to calm the mind, improve academic attendance and test scores, and more.
We explored the positive effects that strength training has on the adult brain in a previous post. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t expand this to look at the particular positives that regular exercise can have for the developing child’s mind. We know from neuroscience that the regions of the brain responsible for decision-making, self-regulation, and emotional control keep growing until a person is at least 25. This means that there is a lot of brain plasticity to play with up until this point. And one of the most potent inputs is physical activity.
Busting Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
A study conducted at University College London investigated teenagers’ movement habits over several years. They were troubled to discover that teens typically become more sedentary as they move through middle and high school, which correlated with an increase in mental health issues like chronic depression. However, when there was an intervention prescribing more activity, their mental health improved. Writing in The New York Times, Perri Klass summarized the findings, stating that “activity levels when kids were younger were linked to their mental health later on; the depression scores at 18 were lower for every additional 60 minutes per day of light activity at 12, 14 and 16, and higher for every additional sedentary hour.”
Klass went on to relay the finding of a study of European adolescents, which concluded that, “The most active group (eight to 14 of the past 14 days) had the highest levels of well-being and the lowest levels of depression and anxiety.” Further research suggests that a combination of free-form play, sports, everyday activities like walking, and resistance training is the best prescription for youngsters’ mental health. A comprehensive meta-analysis by British and Australian researchers suggested that “interventions of varying intensity may lead to a reduction in depression symptoms and that moderate-to-vigorous-intensity and light-intensity interventions may reduce anxiety symptoms.”
There’s plenty of emerging evidence to indicate that at least some of kids’ physical exercise should take place in nature. Encapsulating a review published in Environmental Science and Technology, an article in ScienceDaily asserted that, “compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression.”
Elevating Test Scores and Reducing Behavioral Issues
In their brilliant book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, psychiatrist John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman examine the positive benefits that physical activity has on the mind. We discussed how this applies to the adult brain in a previous article, but for the purposes of this piece, Ratey and Hagerman’s work contains some valuable insights about the connection between exercise and kids’ cognitive and emotional development.
In the book, Ratey connects the dots between the self-efficacy that physical training develops and greater emotional regulation, particularly among troubled teenagers. After publishing Spark, Ratey founded a nonprofit called Sparking Life (tagline: power your brain through exercise) that emphasizes multi-dimensional learning through enhanced PE programs and also empowers adults through movement-based initiatives. In an interview with Carol Lloyd for Great Schools, Ratey shared the impact that this initiative had on 25 unruly kids in Barrie, Ontario in Canada. “They went from 95 days of suspension to 5 days, attendance went way up, as did the grades,” Ratey said.
In another October 2020 interview, Ratey talked about the impact that a district-wide daily fitness program in Naperville, Illinois had on students’ academic performance. “Their whole focus was on getting kids moving and keeping them moving,” he said. “And it paid off. They were an A++ school in Illinois, and they really competed with schools from the North Shore of Chicago for the highest number of National Merit Scholars and so forth.”
Ratey isn’t alone in coming to such a conclusion. According to Children’s Hospital Colorado, “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.” We often think of brain-based and physical pursuits as two separate things, but a paper released via Developmental Review explained that “engagement in physical activity (or more specifically aerobic exercise) is also a cognitive activity that recruits higher-order brain regions and requires adaptive thinking.” The same is true of resistance exercise, which requires kids to practice being fully present and concentrate intently on how their body is moving.
Clearly, when it comes to kids’ cognitive, emotional regulation, and academic performance, the best medicine is movement. And if a child is struggling with mental health concerns, simply getting them active might be a great first step to tackle issues with anxiety, stress, and depression.
Miss part one of this series? Click HERE to catch up.
 B Janet Hibbs and Anthony Rostain, “Why 90 Percent of Generation Z Says They're Stressed Out,” Psychology Today, December 17, 2018, available online at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-stressed-years-their-lives/201812/why-90-percent-generation-z-says-theyre-stressed-out.
 Perri Klass, “The Benefits of Exercise for Children’s Mental Health,” The New York Times, March 2, 2020, available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/02/well/family/the-benefits-of-exercise-for-childrens-mental-health.html.
 Michaela Pascoe et al, “Physical Activity and Exercise in Youth Mental Health Promotion: A Scoping Review,” BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, January 23, 2020, available online at https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/6/1/e000677.
 “Benefits of Outdoor Exercise Confirmed,” ScienceDaily, February 5, 2011, available online at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110204130607.htm.
 Carol Lloyd, “Exercise and The Brain,” Great Schools, March 10, 2014, available online at https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/spark-exercise-and-the-brain/.
 “The Effects of Exercise on the Brain with Dr. John Ratey,” KineSophy, October 1, 2020, available online at
 “The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity,” Children’s Hospital Colorado, available online at https://www.childrenscolorado.org/conditions-and-advice/parenting/parenting-articles/mental-health-benefits-exercise/.
 John R. Best, “Effects of Physical Activity on Children’s Executive Function: Contributions of Experimental Research on Aerobic Exercise,” Developmental Review, December 2010, available online at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0273229710000304?via%3Dihub.
Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.