The various physical advantages of regular exercise are already well documented, with research consistently underscoring the beneficial effects on the immune system, muscular strength, bone density, and circulation, to name but a few. Physical activity is certainly worthwhile endeavour in its own right, not only due to the physical benefits of physical activity but also due to the effect on holistic health and wellbeing. The recent concerns over the increase in mental health issues amongst school age children have highlighted the additional potential of physical activity in combating stress and developing the social and psychological skills needed to deal with modern life. The relationship between positive mental health and physical activity is therefore worth investigating.
Many in the education sector have warned of the growing risk of young people developing psychological issues such as depression and eating disorders, due to a hyper-focus on exam results at the expense of other life skills. Recent statistics indicate that twenty per cent of children have a mental health problem in any given year (Mental Health Foundation, 2005) and that these rates generally increase as children reach adolescence (Nuffield Foundation, 2013). Severe depression has risen dramatically in the last few decades, with an increasing number of young people now being admitted to hospital due to intentional self-harm (Young Minds, 2011). Suggested causes range from over emphasis on exam results, harmful messages regarding body image and encouraged self-obsession, an overuse of social media, an increased vulnerability to alcohol and drug abuse, glorification of material products, and a lack of coping strategies and life skills.
A study by Bailey (2006) into the benefits of physical education and sport in schools noted the beneficial effect on the development of student social skills and social behaviours, self-esteem and pro-school attitudes. Bailey stressed the fact that many of these benefits resulted from the nature of interactions between students and their coaches, parents, teachers and peers within a context that emphasised positive experiences and the engagement of all. While the strategies and techniques of sport psychology may be useful for improving athletic performance, the values of sports participation extends well into other areas of life. Values such as the holistic development of the individual and group abilities, a focus on helping each person achieve their potential, an understanding of the environment in which individuals and groups function, are all applicable to many other domains. So too is the ability to perform under pressure in a controlled manner, solve problems, meet deadlines and challenges, set goals, communicate appropriately, handle both success and failure, work with a group and within a wider system, and receive and benefit from constructive feedback (Danish & Nellen, 1997).
Increasing the level of physical activity could be used as a means of combating the aforementioned lack of psychological skills has been suggested by many. Sir Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, is one such advocate, arguing that schools should ensure that every child engages in physical activity at least three times a week, and that education should impart to students a greater responsibility for their own physical and mental health (“Head warns of”, 2015). This would enable young people to more readily deal with the stresses and challenges of modern life, aswel as an improved physical and mental state of health and wellbeing.
Hours of homework, especially during end of year exams or tests, can leave students feeling isolated and cooped up indoors. Social media has been blamed for accentuating the problem, as many youngsters become overly dependent on online communication at the detriment of face-to-face interaction. Taking part in physical activity allows for direct interaction with others, and can allow students a way of preventing loneliness or anxiety during stressful periods in their life developing into depression.
Additionally, physical activity itself contributes to a reduction in stress levels. Health care professionals commonly recommend exercise as an important tool in managing anxiety and depression due to the link between physical activity and the alteration of brain chemistry. One study by Kremer et al (2014) investigated the correlation between levels of exercise, leisure-time screen use, and depression in children and young adolescents, and found that increased participation with physical activity during school lessons or greater involvement in school sports teams were both independently associated with a lower risk for depressive symptoms. Lower levels of leisure-time screen use among adolescents were also directly associated with lower depressive symptoms.
Aside from acting as a temporary distraction from the issues causing low mood, and offering a release of built up tension, exercise stimulates the production of endorphins in the brain that lead to a heightened sense of well-being in the individual. At the same time, physical activity reduces the levels of cortisol secretion in the body, which lowers stress levels.
Taking into account the many additional social and emotional benefits of exercise, encouraging students to be more active in school, community sports, and in other contexts should help to reverse the levels of depression, anxiety and stress in children and adolescents, whilst passing on important coping strategies and skills that will be of benefit in all areas of their life.