Children’s Mental Health and Physical Activity

September 2020

Physical activity is an essential component in maintaining both our physical and mental health, and especially important for children attempting to cognitively navigate our “new normal” brought on by COVID-19. Family Health and Fitness Day is Saturday, September 26th, and encouraging your tribe to participate in a group physical activity, while strengthening family relationships, is a win-win for everyone. Use this day to get moving and reintroduce the skills and encouragement that children may be missing, now that many organized activities such as team sports and parks and recreation programs have been cancelled. The strong emotions and increased stress factors we are all currently experiencing, can wreak havoc on our mental health. So it’s no surprise that children’s emotional health may be suffering, and may require special attention during this time. Exercise may help mitigate these feelings of stress and anxiety, while supporting their emotional well-being.

According to the American Psychological Association’s site, “Physical activity has a small but significant effect on the mental health of children and adolescents ages 6 to 18, according to a review of 114 studies. On average, young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being (Rodriguez-Ayllon, M., et. al., Sports Medicine, Vol. 49, No. 9, 2019).”

Use Family Health and Fitness day as a springboard to begin a scheduled weekly family outing; biking, hiking, walking or playing an outdoor sport like bocce or badminton, are all great options to get everyone moving. Let each family member take a turn in choosing the activity for the week. Choose a day a day and time that works well with your schedule. If Saturdays seem too busy, and you know that your teens will be off in different directions, try for a weeknight late afternoon or evening.

It’s easy for families to fall into a more sedentary lifestyle lately, as many children and parents are working and learning from home. Although we might cringe at the idea of spending more time with our families, marking the day by getting the family off the couch and away from the screens is a good idea. The benefits that physical activity can provide to help safeguard our mental well-being are worth the extra effort. Engaging in a group activity provides mental and cognitive benefits, such as healthy family competition, encouraging teamwork, being a good sport, reducing stress and improving mood, to name a few. The whole family will reap the benefits of active play.

Nikki Woods, psychotherapist and founder of Navesink Wellness Center, provides us with some tips to increase children’s daily physical activity, and Dorothy Whitehouse, veteran local sports coach and realtor with Sourlis International, shares her thoughts on the importance of physical activity for our children during these uncertain times.


Dorothy Whitehouse, Recreation and Travel Sports Volunteer, Coach

There is so much uncertainty facing all of us today and especially our children. With schools going both virtual and in-school, with no recess, no lunch, the kids are truly missing out on the social aspects that school brings. The lives of kids are being impacted significantly. Not knowing what the future holds can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness; and being cooped up in the house can keep kids from getting the exercise they need. There is a simple remedy for uncertainty and the gloomy feelings it brings — it’s called playing sports outside.

The impact of having recreational sports canceled is significant. Children need to play outside for many reasons; from getting fresh air and sunshine to expressing their emotions. I can understand why indoor sports may be canceled, but playing outdoors, it’s so much easier to maintain space between people than it is inside and keep the kids safe. Even though children need to practice social distancing when they play outside, for the time being, they can still have fun and keep their spirits high. Many sports will require unique considerations, modifications and accommodations. Sports CAN happen safely and parents CAN decide on their own whether they want their kids to participate or not, just as parents are deciding on whether to allow their kids to go back to school or to have them stay virtual only. Children should be encouraged to put down their Chromebooks, which they will be on more than ever with 3 days of virtual learning, and head out into the fresh air. During these times of uncertainty, kids need to break away from upsetting news and information overload and reconnect with friends and participate in sports that bring camaraderie. Engaging in physical activity outdoors also helps decrease stress. When children play and get their hearts pumping, they experience a release of feel-good endorphins. They also get to blow off steam rather than keep difficult emotions bottled up inside.

The schools want to get back to 5 days a week of in school learning but not allowing the kids to play sports outside is not preventing that from happening. In addition, not allowing recreational sports actually takes away from kids learning and education in many ways. Playing sports is proven to improve memory, attention span and concentration, as well as improve sleep, therefore leading to higher grades and better classroom behavior.


Nikki P. Woods, MSW, LCSW. Psychotherapist & Founder of Navesink Wellness Center

Exercise is an essential factor in boosting immunity, promoting healthy development and reducing symptoms associated with stress and anxiety. During this uncertain time however, it has become exponentially more challenging to encourage physical activity.

In addition to the fact that parents are already being expected to balance their children’s academic demands, household obligations and occupational responsibilities during these unprecedented times, there is also the reality that many parks have closed down and athletic organizations are pushing the pause button on upcoming seasons. Consequently, parents may be noticing a change in their children’s overall disposition — more frequent and intense shifts in mood, a lowered ability to self-regulate when frustrated, diminished confidence and self esteem, and a decrease in the length and recuperative quality of sleep.

The benefits of consistent exercise in children of all ages are endless, particularly as they head into the new school year. Here are some tips to help encourage physical activity throughout the entire day:

Emphasize Family Time

Exercise as a family: Go for both scheduled and impromptu bike rides and long walks together.

Promote Social Connection

Create structured practices with a small group of peers: If your child usually participates on a sports team, have a few of their teammates over to play a game together or practice strengthening their skills in the backyard.

Encourage Independent Play

Schedule in as much time as possible each day for the children to simply be outside and play in the yard, using their imagination to entertain themselves as they soak up much needed Vitamin D.


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