One thing every child should be doing for optimal mental and physical health.
Most of us know about the beneficial impact of exercise on our health and that these same effects contribute to the well-being of our children. However, there are also numerous benefits of exercise on the cognitive and emotional development of children. There are multiple studies documenting the positive impact of exercise on children’s ability to attend, learn, plan, and control their emotions.
Studies have examined the impact of children engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise compared to peers who were not enrolled in fitness programs. Children were not only more physically fit as a result of the exercise but also demonstrated more “attentional inhibition,” or the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand. There is also evidence that kids who exercise regularly have more activity in the area of the brain associated with executive functioning (i.e. planning, organization, initiation, emotional control, etc.). Children who are more physical fit have also been found to have a larger hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory function, and perform better on tests of memory than less-fit peers. Children with higher levels of aerobic fitness have been seen to perform with more accuracy and sometimes faster reaction times on tests requiring concentration and attentional control.
Exercise can be used as part of a comprehensive treatment package for kids with Autism, in that it has been shown to reduce aggression, stereotyped and self-injurious behavior and purposeless wandering. Children who have a lower level of stereotypic and disruptive behaviors are in turn more prepared to learn and are more attuned to their environment.
Given the multitude of benefits and minimal risks and costs associated with it, regular exercise should be something we strive to include in our kid’s daily routine. This is especially important in the face of dwindling time devoted to exercise and movement while kids are at school. The best forms of exercise for kids are things that they enjoy, and can be as simple as free, unstructured, physical play. More organized sports can be beneficial in additional ways (e.g. social-emotional) for children who are interested and motivated to participate in them. For kids who are not naturally inclined towards engaging in intense physical activity, an additional investment is necessary on the part of parents. If you can devote the time to create a fun and meaningful experience which incorporates movement and exercise, chances are your kids will be a little more willing and motivated to engage in similar activities in the future.