A 2019 study by Pascoe and colleagues stated that youth mental health disorders are expected to be a leading cause of disability in developed countries by the year 2020. Since 2020 of course, we have been through a global pandemic which has placed further psychological stress on youth and adult populations alike.
A recent study pointed to the 18 leading fears amongst young people, the first five of which are unemployment, economic uncertainty and financial stress, climate change, and cost of education. Add these to the typical ‘coming-of-age’ stressors such as developing social identity and ‘fitting-in’, and it’s easy to see why psychosocial difficulties are so prevalent today.
There is a growing body of evidence that connects social media use with a growing prevalence of depression and anxiety. Whilst younger populations do not exclusively use these platforms (it is reported that social networking sites have close to 3 billion users worldwide), they are perhaps most at risk of their damaging effects due to time spent using and intensity of use (2).
This points to the importance of encouraging participation in coping and management strategies. Exercise can have a significant positive impact on youth mental health. Regular physical activity has been shown to benefit young people in various ways, both physically and mentally, and perhaps most importantly has no side-effects!
We’ve compiled 7 ways in which exercise can influence youth mental health:
1. Reduces stress and anxiety
Engaging in physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety levels in youth. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters that can improve overall well-being and decrease feelings of anxiety and tension.
2. Improves mood
Regular exercise has been linked to improved mood and a reduction in symptoms of depression. Physical activity can provide a sense of accomplishment and boost self-esteem, which can be particularly beneficial for young people struggling with low self-esteem or depressive feelings.
3. Enhances cognitive function
Exercise has been shown to enhance cognitive function, including attention, memory, and problem-solving skills. Better cognitive function can positively influence a young person’s academic performance and overall sense of accomplishment.
4. Boosts self-confidence and body image
Engaging in physical activities and sports can help young people develop a more positive body image and improve self-confidence. Achieving personal fitness goals and seeing physical improvements can lead to a more positive perception of one’s body and abilities.
In our professional experience it is important that we encourage those new to exercise to manage expectations of performing regular physical activity. This will ensure exercise remains a positive influence, and exercise addiction and body dysmorphic disorders are not developed.
5. Social interaction
Participating in group activities or team sports can provide opportunities for social interaction and the development of strong social bonds. Social connections are crucial for mental health, especially during adolescence when peer relationships play a significant role in shaping identity and well-being.
6. Provides a healthy coping mechanism
Exercise can serve as a healthy coping mechanism for stress and difficult emotions. Rather than turning to harmful coping strategies like substance abuse or self-harm, engaging in physical activity can offer a constructive outlet for processing emotions.
7. Reduces the risk of mental health disorders
Regular exercise may decrease the risk of developing certain mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. It can act as a preventive measure by promoting resilience and overall mental well-being.
Additionally, It is important for young people to play and remain engaged with sport into adulthood. Between the ages of 13 to 17 years, a significant number of young people stop playing organised sport (3). An early connection to sport can encourage a lifelong love of sport and physical activity.
While exercise can be highly beneficial for youth mental health, it’s essential to consider individual preferences and circumstances. Encouraging physical activity in young people should focus on promoting enjoyable and sustainable forms of exercise to maintain their interest and participation over time. Additionally, exercise should complement other mental health interventions and not replace professional treatment when necessary. If a young person is experiencing severe mental health issues, it is crucial to seek the guidance of mental health professionals.
Restart Exercise Physiologist Seth has a particular interest in exercise and its vast benefits on mental health, especially within younger populations. To make an appointment with Seth and integrate the 7 above important impacts exercise has on your mental health, click here.
Enlisting the support of a practitioner passionate in this area can add an eighth benefit – you are not going it alone!