Boost Your Child’s Mental Health Through Exercise

    Children should exercise for at least one hour a day; yet only 4.7% of Hong Kong’s youngsters achieve this, a stark statistic that Mind HK, a mental health charity, hopes to change through efforts like its Move it for Mental Health Campaign. Boost your child’s mental health through exercise.

    Exercise is an easy and, more importantly, enjoyable way for youngsters to manage stress, boost their mood and self esteem, sleep better, learn important life lessons and improve their performance at school, all of which are essential to optimal health and overall mental-wellbeing. Psychologists Dr Natalie Loong and John Shanahan, and HKIS middle school counsellor Laura Cowan share their expertise to highlight why sport and physical exercise are so beneficial to children.

    Exercise Can Help Prevent and Treat Mental Health Problems

    Exercise has been associated with reduced risk of depression and anxiety and improved cognitive function in youth. Dr Natalie Loong, California Licensed Clinical Psychologist says, “organised physical activities and exercise may affect the mental health of children and youth by preventing problems from arising in the first place, promoting positive development and, to a limited extent, physical activity can even help to treat problems once they exist – such as improving the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and symptoms related to ADHD.”

    Exercise Makes You Feel Good

    When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones which give a natural high. Exercise also increases the release of other chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, which help regulate mood. The effects of this, in conjunction with better sleep quality and eating habits, plays a positive role in stress management and improved mental well-being for children.

    Exercise Teaches Resilience and Increases Self-Esteem

    It is important that children challenge themselves to reach new milestones and understand self-discipline and practice – coping with losing and facing hurdles is an important part of developing resilience, according to Laura Cowan, middle school counsellor at HKIS and former physical education teacher. “Being a good loser takes maturity and practice. Losing teaches children to bounce back from disappointment, to cope with unpleasant experiences and is an important part of developing resilience,” she says.

    Research suggests physical activity is linked with improved self-esteem and can assist in the development of resilience. “When you have positive self-esteem, belief, identity and concept, then you are more likely to take risks, ask questions and engage in the learning process more easily. You are also more likely to bounce back from failures and disappointments with resilience and have a ‘can do’ attitude,” Laura explains.

    Dr John Shanahan, a psychologist who specialises in adolescents and children, adds to this: “Individual sports allow you to challenge yourself; to see yourself improving at something the more you practice. It enhances this idea of a growth mindset, a big predictor for future success, by showing you that effort can change outcome. It also allows some children an avenue for success if that child isn’t book smart or performing well at school.”

    Improved Learning

    Dr Shanahan puts it perfectly, “a happy brain is a brain that is good at learning.” Exercise plays a role in facilitating learning and accelerating students’ performance at school. Enhanced cognitive functioning and brain health can improve attention and other factors underlying academic performance. Youngsters tend to burn off a lot of frustration and energy when they exercise, which improves their concentration levels at school. Physical activity is also associated with an improved quantity and quality of sleep, a crucial element for academic performance.

    Children exercising: Boost Your Child’s Mental Health Through Exercise

    Exercise Supports Them Socially and Emotionally

    In many ways, team sports provide social and emotional benefits to children. Dr Loong elaborates: “Sport, especially team sport, provides children and youths with many opportunities for learning and socialising, which benefit them both socially and emotionally. Through team sport, youngsters learn to interact with peers and adults associated with the activity, improving their communication skills, social skills and building their network of social support. Being part of a team with a shared goal also helps to increase a sense of belonging and purpose. Finally, when team sport involves a healthy dose of competition, it can also be a good training ground for children and youths to develop confidence through achievement and develop resilience through learning to cope with setbacks and constructive criticisms.”

    A Sense of Purpose and Support System

    Sports, especially team sports, offer children a safe space and support system, through friendships and connections. Being part of a team and having a shared goal gives children a sense of belonging and purpose; making them feel as if they are contributing to something bigger and manifesting in unique bonds. According to Dr Loong, this in turn helps “develop many of the social skills they will need for life. It teaches them to communicate, cooperate and to listen to and respect each other. While being part of a team, your child learns how important it is to stay healthy and make good decisions so that they can perform optimally.”

    How to Encourage Your Child

    Parents, engaging your children in sports and physical activity early is important to introducing a habit of regular physical activity. According to Laura Cowan, here’s what you can do to get your child moving:

    Make sure it’s a positive experience by finding sports they like – exercise should be fun!

    • Don’t criticise them or compare them to others
    • Positive comments from the sideline will further encourage your children to be active
    • Join in! Set an example and spend some valuable time with your child
    • Take care of your own physical and mental health

    Perfectly summarised by Laura, “we are made to move – sport isn’t just good for our children’s bodies; it’s good for their minds too.” Exercise, be it individually, within a team, through a social outlet (such as playdates and boy scouts) challenges and benefits children in different ways – physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. Signing up your child for after-school sports and attending those dreaded Saturday morning training sessions is worthwhile. Find a sport you child enjoys and it will help embed lifelong habits, valuable through adulthood.

    *We understand that access to sport is limited at the moment, but let’s hope we can get back to team sport as soon as possible. In the meantime, it’s important to keep your children (and everyone in the family) active.

    For more information on mental health for children, learn about CoolMinds here.

    This article was updated on 13 August 2021.

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