You always knew exercise was good for you - but did you know how much it improves mental health?
Fight or Flight Stress Reponse
We evolved to move - that famous fight or flight response is there to keep us safe because there were a lot of scary things out there. We don't run away from sabre-toothed tigers so often now, but there are still lots of things that get us stressed. When your muscles are primed for 'fight or flight' and they don't get used then the stress has nowhere to go. You get rid of it from your body by using your muscles. Essentially, you have to burn it off. This works for children too - their bodies build up the same fight or flight responses when they are worried about things.
We all know exercise is supposed to be good for us. I have a nephew who is like a puppy - ie: if you don't take him out today then whatever happens is definitely your fault!
As a younger child he used lots of the ideas you will find in this guide. As an 11 year old he plays organised tennis and football twice a week and if you put a step-counter on him reaches 30,000 steps a day - so he's definitely moving at school lunchtimes too. But not all kids are like that - what about the ones who like drawing, writing or chatting at lunchtime instead of running?
In the UK, NHS advice says:
“To stay healthy, adults aged 19 to 64 should try to be active daily and should do: at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity such as cycling or brisk walking every week and. strength exercises on 2 or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)."
There are probably quite a lot of us who couldn’t claim to manage that NHS target most weeks. And it usually isn’t because we don’t want to or don’t care about our bodies. There are lots of reasons why exercise is tricky to fit in to our busy lives, is hard to motivate ourselves to do, or just feels too difficult or boring.
Fit It In
As a working psychologist and mum, I know how hard it is to fit exercise in. But I also know why it is a really good idea. And I’m not talking about controlling weight or making your bones stronger, I’m talking about good for our mental health. This is a message you might have heard before, but I think it is sometimes hard to understand why.
There are lots of social reasons why doing exercise can be beneficial for our mental health. If you get out of your house to exercise, you are more likely to meet people, even if only someone you bump into on the street. Taking part in an exercise class or a sports activity can help you meet people and reduce isolation and loneliness, which we know is a massive source of stress and mental health difficulties. Feeling fitter might help boost your self-esteem and give you a sense of achievement. Working towards goals and reaching them can be a massive boost to our self-confidence.
There are also physical reasons why exercise and mental health are linked. Exercise releases endorphins, which are chemicals your body produces to cope with physical stress and pain. Endorphins can give you a real buzz. Getting outdoors to exercise, even if it is only a 10 minute walk, will increase your exposure to natural light, even on a cloudy day, and we know that exposure to natural light can really help with regulating your body clock, helping you sleep better, and brightening your mood.
Stress is Chemical
There is another significant way that exercise can help, and that is by getting rid of stress chemicals. Stress chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol are produced in your body, entirely naturally, in response to stress. Our bodies are really good at noticing potentially risky or dangerous things and responding by getting ready to react. So, if risky thing your body has noticed is a tiger, and the production of stress chemicals helps you run away really quickly and stay safe, it has done its job right. But, if the risky thing your body has spotted is an exam in 2 weeks’ time, or money worries, or friends not being kind to you anymore, then the stress chemicals stay in your body and don’t go anywhere. Exercise helps you burn off the extra chemicals, keep the balance of chemicals right, and manage stress much better. By exercising, you are helping to regulate the production of the chemicals and burn off those that have already been produced.
Feel the burn
Encouraging children to exercise is important for all the same reasons. We often talk needing to 'burn off the energy'. What we really mean is to burn off the stress chemicals and get happy through activity. Most children enjoy being active and being outdoors, once they get going, but some need more encouragement than others. If they are feeling anxious or stressed encourage them to get out and get moving, and if possible, do something with them.
For Young People
Any activity like jogging, walking, dancing, karate, horse riding etc is helpful. Enrol in a gym, buy a bike, walk the dog - it all works. Basically aim to raise your heart rate for a sustained length of time with some form of exercise to feel the benefits.
Top 10 Activities for Younger Kids
Kick a ball around
Go for a run round the garden or up and down the street
Scavenger hunt round the garden or park
Go for a bike or scooter ride
Even if you don’t have a garden, or the weather is awful, there are ways to get kids active.
5. Use the timer on your phone to set each other mini challenges – how many star jumps can you do in 1 minute? (Try not to compete with each other but improve your own score – “Yay! You did 5 – do you think you could do 6 if we did it again?
6. Set up an indoor assault course – my kids love making these up for each other! Put books down on the floor to jump over, cushions to balance on, a chair to run around. Agree a short route around the obstacles and take it in turns to try it out.
7. Go for a walk – even if it is just round the block. If you need a reason to get out of the house, post a letter, buy a pint of milk or think up a task e.g go on an ‘A’ walk and find as many things as possible that start with ‘A’, ), a’ rainbow walk’, where you have to find something in all the colours of the rainbow in order; or for older kids, do a number walk – can you find numbers of things up to 10 (2 magpies, 3 daisies, 4 blue cars etc).
8. Run up and down the stairs a few times.
9. Dance to pop songs. My nieces like to stage Strictly Come Dancing 'competitions' and I have to give scores and comments such as 'Bruno Tagliatelli - It's a 9 from me'.
10. The dreaded phone (I know) but it was a revelation when we gave a step counter app to a bored 8 yr old in a museum one day. Jim racked up 4000 delighted steps around the coach parties whilst his older sister learned about the ancient Greeks. Win win - well except for his history education... There are many fitness tracker apps or similar out there and they do seem hugely motivational for some children.
My thoughts about school PE Lessons
Clearly, they can be a great thing. At our primary school one teacher does circuit training with Yr 6 in PE lessons and in theory everyone does a daily 'mile' of running round the field. Those are definitely exercise. But in my experience school PE is often not going to raise anyone's heart-rate. Long explanations of hockey rules, planning football tactics, discussing the benefits of exercise etc. are all ways for secondary school sports lessons to become just another sit and listen activity. In primary schools, I have personally experienced these excuses for missing PE lessons: we needed the time to rehearse the assembly, another class were using the equipment, the hall is set-up for next-week's concert, the field is too wet, most children forgot their kit, we have to catch up on the new maths curriculum, we are timetabled to do tennis but we only have 1 court so most people have to watch, the hall roof fell in (yes really!)...
Basically, don't expect that what happens in a normal school week will include exercise - and go find some planned clubs, or use the ideas above, to make sure that your kids are doing enough physical activity to feel happy as well as to stay fit.
With best wishes,
Dr Helen, from A Confident Start at
AConfidentStart.com - psychology that works for your family