Regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence is important for motor development and overall health and fitness. Additionally, solid physical activity behaviors in the early years can help to set a foundation for life-long exercise adherence and an appreciation for physical activity. Unfortunately, most kids are not getting enough exercise. In 2016, only 21.6% of 6- to 19-year-old children and adolescents in the United States reported getting 60 or more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on at least five days per week (National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, 2016).
This is significant, not only because physical activity is essential to physical health, but also because exercise can help improve kids’ body image, reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, and lead to improved health behaviors. Read on to learn more about how physical activity can be a powerful tool for teaching kids to love their bodies.
Children and adolescents (ages 6 through 17 years) should accumulate a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity daily, and should include a combination of the following:
• Aerobic activity: Most of the 60 minutes or more should be either moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. At least three days of vigorous-intensity activity is recommended.
• Muscle-strengthening activities: On at least three days of the week, part of the 60 minutes or more of physical activity should include muscle-strengthening activities. Older children and adolescents can do traditional weight-lifting activities if desired. Younger children can benefit from play that involves bending, lifting and pulling—think monkey bars and obstacle courses at neighborhood playgrounds.
• Bone-strengthening activities: As part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include bone-strengthening physical activity on at least three days a week. Sports and activities that involve impact, especially those involving jumping, leaping and skipping, are desirable for bone strengthening.
Activities that are enjoyable and age appropriate should be emphasized (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2019). It is well established that physical activity is important in the prevention and management of chronic disease, but what else can regular exercise do for kids?
Physical activity can help to counter feelings of stress and anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the largest mental health condition in the U.S., affecting more than 40 million adults each year. Anxiety disorders are most common in 13- to 17-year-olds, with the average age of onset being 6 years (Merikangas et al., 2010). Physical activity has been shown to improve mood and can reduce stress. Health psychologists believe that regular exercise may have a “brain-buffering effect.” When life’s stressors begin to take a toll on us, this physical activity buffer can help to counter uncomfortable and difficult feelings. (Weir, 2011).
When kids adopt healthy physical activity behaviors early, this coping mechanism is already established when life hands them the proverbial lemon. Kids may see their exercise activity—and their strong, fit bodies—as an asset when everything else in life feels overwhelming.
Physical activity improves body image.
Body image—what a person believes or emotionally feels about his or her body’s shape, weight and general appearance—is influenced by the media, family, cultural groups and personal psychological factors. A negative body image is often accompanied by a distorted perception of one’s own appearance and is associated with persistent feelings of discomfort, shame or anxiety about one’s own body. People with a positive body image, on the other hand, see themselves as they really are.
In a recent national poll, 83% of women and 74% of men reported feeling dissatisfied with how their bodies look at times (Ipsos, 2018). While body dissatisfaction does not necessarily equate to a negative body image, this preoccupation can become a source of insecurity and can affect self-esteem. Regular physical activity has been shown to improve both body image and self-esteem (Campbell and Hausenblas, 2009). Furthermore, physical activity and body image may have a reciprocal effect on each other. Kids with positive body images are more likely to believe that they can succeed at exercise-related activities. When they participate and succeed, positive feelings about their bodies are reinforced.
Physical activity can be a powerful tool for shaping other health behaviors.
The leading causes of premature death and reduced quality of life in the U.S. are all related to health-behavior choices: smoking, inactivity, poor diet and excessive alcohol consumption (CDC, 2016). When we teach kids that their health-behavior choices have both an immediate and long-lasting impact on how they feel, we give them a head start and a sense of agency over their personal health and wellness. Once kids understand the physical activity–health connection, we can use this model to encourage them to adopt other health-promoting behaviors. When we focus on personal behaviors rather than body size, competition or the physical abilities of others, we nurture body-positive feelings.
The lure of electronics and video games have made it more challenging to motivate kids to move for the recommended 60 minutes a day. But if parents, health and exercise professionals, and anyone else who cares about kids commit to this charge, we can help young people learn to love and care for their bodies—not only in youth, but across the life span.