Today, it is widely accepted that physical health impacts mental health. The body has the power to impact the mind, and this is true of people of all ages. In the short term, exercise and physical activity can positively impact mood. Over the long term, regular activity can help support many aspects of mental health from anxiety to depression.
But good mental health can also support good physical health.
This relationship is the finding of a significant meta-study that found there was a quantifiable and significant benefit to a life of increased physical activity, correlating to better mental health. It also finds that “the total indirect effect, the direct effect, and the total effect of past mental health on physical health are statistically significant.”
Good physical health supports good mental health and good mental health supports good physical health.
Written with Cal Smith, Regional Director at Premier Education, this article details the aspects of mental health that are impacted by physical activity, as well as the physical activities that can support good mental health in primary-aged children. Cal is a trained Premier Education coach, has a four-year teaching degree, level 2 Nutrition and Healthy Eating qualification and has completed Mental Health Awareness For Sport and Physical Activity with 1st 4Sport.
The article also provides recommendations on how to use physical activity in schools to support good mental health.
These effects depend on the type and frequency of exercise. For example, aerobic and anaerobic exercise will affect the body differently, as will resistance training (which is less relevant for young children, though bone-loading exercises like jumping, dancing, running and tennis can help make kids’ bones denser, which makes them stronger.).
The key difference between young people and adults is that the former is in a developmental stage of their life. What they do can have long-lasting effects from the physical to the mental.
So, while the physiological effects of physical activity may be the same, the knock-on effects of regular activity will be different. For example:
“According to the National Child Measurement Programme 2019/20, 9.9% of children in reception, nationally were obese,” explains Cal. “This number was 21% by the time they reach secondary school. And these numbers have risen since 2018. We are failing to solve this problem in primary school, but we could.”
While this is not the focus of this article, the ‘obesity emergency’ is the national context. By failing to help children set up good habits at the earliest opportunity, they are finding it harder and failing to do so in later life.
Legislators and educators can play a part in reversing this worrying trend.
If this approach is widely accepted, why do we need to address primary-aged children differently? The key is that these young children are at a developmental stage with physical, emotional, and psychological patterns, habits, capabilities yet to be formed. This means that, unlike older children and adults, it is more important that healthy habits and attitudes are cemented to support further healthy development.
Research into the biology of stress has found that ‘toxic stress’ in young children can “derail healthy development” adding that “toxic stress… excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain…. can have damaging effects on learning, behaviour, and health across the lifespan.” Importantly, the study does however add that: “Not all stress is damaging. The prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems can be damaging, but some stress is a normal part of life. Learning how to cope with stress is an important part of development.”
Habits and beliefs and behaviours are harder to unpick later in life, so parents and teachers have a unique opportunity with young children to set up good mental health best practice and address any specific issues.
So far so good. But there are specific challenges around supporting young child mental health as opposed to older children. For example, many young children are not good at expressing or externalising how they feel yet. The BMJ highlights the issues even beyond diagnosis: “Even among children who receive a formal mental health diagnosis, only 10% of four-year-olds and 25% of adolescents with a diagnosis are likely to receive a service.”
This means that behaviours and mental health issues can go unnoticed until they are more visible. As such, approaches to supporting mental health in primary aged children need to be different. And because physical activity is a key tool in supporting mental health, it will need to be different for younger children.
There is extensive data on child mental health and even the impact of physical activity and exercise. However, this data tends to include a wide age group, for example, 3-16 or 5-17. Therefore, the specific differences between younger and older children are lost in the data – averaged out.
There is advice on what physical activity to deliver and how to do it for specific age groups, though this lacks the data that drives the guidance.
The following is data from studies that allows comparison between age groups. This is to highlight the differences between the ages and guide specific delivery of physical activity to support good mental health in younger children:
It is important to note that while physical activity can support child development, it can’t solve psychological or psychiatric issues.
In summary, the physical and mental benefits of physical activity can all support healthy emotional development, including emotional resilience and the skills to navigate life’s challenges. Importantly, as good physical health helps to build good mental health, so too that good mental health supports good physical health. As such it is important not to think about physical and mental as discrete – there is a direct two-way, mutually supporting relationship.
Cal details a number of actions: