Children’s Mental Health week | The importance of physical activity

Paul Rainer FMS Blog - Children_Playing football.jpg

As part of Children’s Mental Health Week (7 – 13 February), Gabrielle Hale, doctoral researcher in the Promoting Lifelong Health Group, explores the role of professional football clubs in enhancing the mental health and well-being of young people. Her research is currently being used to develop an evidence-based intervention that can be delivered by all football clubs across the UK.

“It is understood that physical activity can be good for our mental health, and children and young people are no exception. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that children aged five to seventeen should take part in an average of 60 minutes physical activity per day and studies have shown that this can have a positive impact on physical and mental health. Children who are more physically active display higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression, due to various factors such as changes to the structure of the brain, opportunities for social interaction, and increases in confidence.

Despite these benefits, many children are not active enough. One recent study across 146 countries estimated that up to 80% of children and young people do not meet WHO physical activity recommendations, and these declines can start as early as five years old. Adding to this, poor mental health is on the rise, with approximately three children in every classroom having a diagnosable mental health problem.

Many factors can lead to declines in physical activity during childhood. For example, increased time spent on academic activities, preferences for electronic media, negative experiences of PE at school, and perceived judgement from peers. Research has found that more personal factors, such as concerns over physical appearance and low self-esteem, can also act as barriers.  This means that children might avoid physical activity due to poor body image and self-esteem, yet this lack of activity can also negatively impact their mental health as they are not receiving the benefits that are associated with a more active lifestyle.

Both physical inactivity and poor mental health are public health concerns, and addressing these issues are vital for promoting the physical and mental health of our future generations. Moreover, the recent Lancet Commission highlighted the value of using novel programmes to promote children’s mental health, and physical activity can be considered one useful and cost-effective pathway. Physical activity programmes can be used to encourage children to increase their levels of physical activity, whilst also promoting their mental health and reducing the likelihood of a mental health problem developing in later life.

My research has looked at the impact of using professional football club programmes to promote the mental health of children and young people aged six to eighteen, with an overall goal of developing a standard programme that can be rolled out across the UK in football settings.

A review of the evidence identified 51 studies that had measured the impact of physical activity programmes on children’s mental health. Overall, it was found that these programmes can improve various factors associated with good mental health, including quality of life, body image, self-esteem, resilience, and mood. The research found that these programmes can be delivered in school or community settings, but most often they are delivered by teachers during the school day.

Various types of physical activities have been used by these programmes, including aerobic activities (e.g., rope skipping, dancing), team sports (e.g., football, volleyball), yoga, water-based activities (e.g., swimming, water polo) and age-appropriate resistance training (e.g., sit-ups, squats). Often, programmes include more than one type of activity and are delivered in short bursts throughout the day, including before and after school, between lessons, and during breaks. Some programmes also set physical activity “homework” to encourage young people to stay active after school and on weekends.

This research also found that physical activity programmes can be delivered alone or as part of a multicomponent framework, where physical activity is combined with additional sessions to teach children about other important topics. These topics can include health education (e.g., the importance of being physically active, the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables) or psychoeducation (e.g., managing negative emotions, five ways to promote mental well-being). These messages can be delivered using workshops, information booklets, letters to parents, discussion groups, or via mobile applications/websites.”

In summary:

  • Rates of physical activity are declining in children as early as five years old and this can have a negative impact on mental health.
  • There are many barriers to physical activity participation, including preferences for academic studies, time spent on electronic media, negative experiences of PE, and fear of judgement from peers.
  • Programmes that are aimed at increasing children’s physical activity can also promote their mental health, by improving quality of life, body image, self-esteem, resilience, and mood.
  • Children can be encouraged to become more active at school by offering short bursts of various types of physical activities throughout the day.

A portion of this research has been published in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. See Hale, G. E., Colquhoun, L., Lancastle, D., Lewis, N., & Tyson, P. J. (2021). Physical activity interventions for the mental health and well-being of adolescents: A systematic review.