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Physical Activity and Mental Health in Children

The physical activity entails bodily motion from skeletal muscle that requires individuals to spend energy. On the other hand, mental health is the state of wellbeing where people discover their abilities, cope with life stresses, work productively and contribute to their communities. Evidence suggests that taking part in physical activity supports children’s current and future mental health. For instance, young people undertaking more physical activity often have lower depression, stress, and physical distress while exhibiting positive self-image, life satisfaction, and psychological wellbeing (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1383). Systematic review and meta-analysis of literature seek to determine the impact of physical activity on mental health outcomes in children. Physical activity enhances mental health in children by improving cognitive function and self-esteem while alleviating anxiety, depression, and negative moods.

Cognitive Function

Routine physical activity has a significant association with enhanced cognitive functioning, classroom behavior, and academic success in children. However, this correlation remains minimal and not entirely consistent. Biddle et al. (23) indicated that physical activity interventions often enhance executive functioning for young people as evidenced by increased ability to initiate, adapt, regulate, monitor, and control information processes and behavior. Additionally, educational pursuits and quiet activities like reading, studying, drawing, crafting, listening to music, or doing puzzles in sedentary behavior positively affect cognitive function and academic outcomes (Chaput, Jean-Philippe, et al., 6). These aspects are vital for child development because they enhance cognition and other benefits. Therefore, physical activity boosts memory and thinking indirectly through mood and sleep enhancement and stress and anxiety reduction. Poor memory or thinking often leads to cognitive impairment.

Another relationship between physical activity and cognitive function includes a positive correlation in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For instance, physical activity benefits executive function and attention control in children with ADHD (Christiansen et al., 26). A retrospective assessment of childhood physical activity levels and the severity of ADHD symptoms with adulthood symptoms indicate that high exercise in childhood prevents individuals from carrying ADHD symptoms into adulthood. Late adolescence physical activity levels also have an inverse relation with the severity of early adulthood inattention and impulsivity symptoms (Christiansen et al., 26). However, this correlation is not practically confirmed to be causal. Elsewhere, acute exercise correlates positively with arousal consorted by enhanced performance in diverse cognitive tasks. A single physical activity session is less likely to result in long-lasting changes in cognitive function, but immediate impacts include better classroom behavior and learning outcomes. Therefore, physical activity correlates positively with cognitive function in children with ADHD symptoms as several interventions prevent the transfer of childhood symptoms into adulthood.

Children require physical activity to improve their health and wellbeing. Without physical activity, children increase their vulnerability to impaired cognitive functioning, obesity, or cardio-metabolic risks if they spend much time on sedentary activities like sitting, watching television, or using computers (Gilbert et al., 2). Meta-analyses of diverse cognitive domains indicate a positive effect of acute exercise in population-based control children. The Covid-19 pandemic created movement restrictions that reduced physical activity as children resorted to sedentary behaviors. Therefore, maintained or decreased physical activity negatively impacted the protective factors for mental wellbeing (Gilbert et al., 9). This experience requires close monitoring of children during movement restrictions to identify interventions necessary for preventing long-term consequences of poor mental wellbeing, diminished physical activity, and increased sedentary behavior.

Physical activity can enhance brain structure and function as quantified by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. For instance, using MRI indicates that consistent nine months of physical activity improves the structure and function of brain systems that control cognitive functioning (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1402). Increased screen activities at night can hinder adequate sleep that children need to achieve normal cognitive and emotional development. This aspect indicates that replacing healthy habits with unhealthy ones negatively impacts children’s mental wellbeing. Given that sedentary behavior often takes place independently, it can affect cognition by eliciting loneliness feelings that impact mental health negatively (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1402). Increased screen time can also create social isolation detrimental to children’s mental health. Therefore, there is a possibility that physical activity changes the brain structure and function to impact children’s mental health positively.


According to Biddle et al. (11), physical activity can improve self-esteem. An example includes aerobic exercise that feeds the brain vital nutrients and oxygen necessary for improving cognitive function. People often feel more focused, alert, and able to complete life tasks more efficiently; thus, enhancing their self-esteem. However, there is a deficiency of good quality research correlating self-esteem with physical activity (Biddle et al., 11). This aspect follows the complexity of the field of self-esteem as the global definition relates the aspect with self-evaluation that carries more specific sub-domains like physical and social self-perceptions. Physical activity enhances mood and creates a positive mind in the short-term while creating positive feelings of one’s physical self in the long-term. Therefore, most studies indicate a positive correlation between physical activity and self-esteem due to increased alertness, focus, and efficient task completion.

Several studies indicate that physical activity might improve mental health by stimulating endorphins release. For instance, physical activity increases brain-derived neurotrophic factors alongside the growth of new capillaries (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1384). These processes can enhance the brain’s structural and functional constitution necessary for improved self-esteem. Additionally, some theoretical perspectives suggest that increasing physical activity levels and lessening sedentary behavior can help children and young people satisfy basic psychological needs like social connectedness, self-acceptance, and purposefulness and enhance the overall mental wellbeing (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1384). Increased leisure and screen-based sedentary behaviors increase the chances of adolescents developing higher psychological distress and reduced self-esteem. Therefore, physical activity and self-esteem have positive correlations in children and young people, as evidenced by an improved structural and functional composition of their brains.

The relationship between physical activity and mental health operates under the influence of several potential moderators and mediators. For example, children and young people develop enhanced self-esteem when they enjoy physical activity. Perceived sports competence also improves self-esteem by mediating the link between sports participation and self-esteem (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1398). Additionally, there is a causal correlation linking perceived appearance, fitness, and competence to global self-concept and self-esteem. Psychosocial paths like social support and autonomy also enhance mental wellbeing in children and young people by mediating the effects of physical activity on their mental health (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1402). However, poorly designed physical activity interventions can hinder the satisfaction of children’s needs and limit their perceived competence and global self-esteem. Therefore, reducing sedentary behavior improve self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness in children and young people.

The correlation between physical activity and self-esteem remains small but has a significant positive impact on young people’s mental health. For instance, commuting actively, playing outdoor games, and participating in sports can influence children’s and young people’s mental wellbeing (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1405). Regarding physical activity approaches, team sports involvement consistently enhances mental wellbeing in children and adolescents, while increased sedentary behaviors correlate negatively with children and adolescents’ mental health. Higher levels of recreational screen time of approximately two hours per day diminish mental wellbeing in children and adolescents due to increased social isolation and feelings of loneliness that limit self-esteem, self-image, life satisfaction, and psychological wellbeing in children (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1405). Therefore, interventions targeting increased physical activity and decreased sedentary behavior improve self-esteem among children and young people by supporting their current and future mental health.


According to Biddle et al. (10-11), physical activity interventions have a small beneficial impact on reduced anxiety in children and young people. However, the evidence requires further development because it remains limited. There is a positive correlation between anxiety and physical activity, with effect sizes ranging between very small but significant, moderate, and large. For instance, small but significant effects emerge from yoga, while moderate-t0-large effects emerge in healthy young people (Biddle et al., 11). Moderate effects appear in young people with ADHD. Short-term aerobic exercises ranging from six to ten weeks adopting several intervention formats also create a moderate-to-large positive effect on young people aged six to eighteen years old diagnosed with ADHD (Biddle et al., 41). Therefore, increased physical activity has significant impacts in alleviating anxiety in children and young people.

Physical activity and exercise exert plenty of benign physiological, psychological, and neurocognitive effects in children and young people. For instance, increased physical activity and exercise alleviates stress, anxiety, depression, and their negative impacts on children and young people (Chaput et al., 4). Increased physical activity also creates a positive influence on executive and memory functions. As children and young people engage in physical activity interventions, they release feel-good endorphins, endogenous cannabinoids, and other natural brain chemicals that enhance their sense of wellbeing. Animal tests also prove that exercise and regular physical activity have positive effects on the pathophysiological processes of anxiety. Additionally, increased physical activity alleviates anxiety in clinical settings. Therefore, regular exercise and physical activity lower anxiety symptoms by triggering the release of brain chemicals with positive effects on the pathophysiological processes of anxiety.

The emergence of Covid-19 that limited movements and encouraged sedentary behavior indicated that decreased physical activity leads to poor mental wellbeing in children. For instance, children who fail to meet the recommended 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily increase their risks of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety (Gilbert et al., 2). Poor mental wellbeing, limited physical activity, and increased sedentary behavior during childhood can create serious health consequences like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease that can persist into adulthood anxiety. Therefore, schools and parents must communicate actively with children during pandemics like Covid-19 to alleviate fear and worry that motivate anxiety. Moreover, increasing outdoor physical activity levels and integrating short activities is necessary for breaking up sedentary behavior to protect children from anxiety and other effects like depression, obesity, and diabetes.

The cellular and molecular bases of mental health indicate that reduced levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factors increase the level of anxiety and depression. This factor is necessary for enhanced growth and healthy maintenance of neurons. According to Rodriguez-Ayllon, et al. (1402), increasing physical activity and exercise improves the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factors in children’s central nervous system. This aspect is vital to alleviating anxiety and depressive symptoms. Elsewhere, increased physical activity and exercise increase dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline concentrations in the brain to improve children’s moods and protect them against mental health problems (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1402). Higher time spent in sedentary behavior correlates positively with life satisfaction and happiness in children and adolescents. Therefore, decreasing sedentary behavior through increased physical activity and exercise can reduce depression, life dissatisfaction, and sadness among children and young people.


Individuals who fail to undertake physical activity are twice more likely to develop depression and anxiety symptoms that those practicing regular physical activity. Despite the evidence base remaining limited, physical activity seems to be more potentially beneficial in reducing depression than non-intervention (Biddle et al., 7). Cross-sectional evidence also indicates a small but significant association between physical activity and depression, while longitudinal studies indicate large and significant associations. Despite depression in adults appearing to be a mental health outcome associated with physical inactivity, evidence indicates that the association is more consistent in young people than in adults (Biddle et al., 19). Increased physical activity reduces depression among children and young people aged two to eighteen years. Therefore, physical activity is a promising primary intervention for children and young people experiencing depressive symptoms.

Greater levels and higher intensities of physical activity have positive correlations with benign health outcomes like cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular fitness, and skeletal health. Therefore, physical activity reduces the risks of depressive symptoms in children and young people with or without the major depressive disorder (Chaput et al., 4). Working out and other forms of physical activity ease depressive symptoms by making individuals feel better. For instance, regular physical activity and exercise trigger the release of natural brain chemicals like feel-good endorphins and divert the mind from worries and break the cycle of negative thoughts that motivate depression. Children and adolescents can undertake physical activity as part of leisure and recreation, physical education, transportation, or house chores to reduce sedentary behavior that triggers depression (Chaput et al., 6). Therefore, children should do at least 60 minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity focusing on aerobics to alleviate depression.

Researchers have repeatedly reported physical activity and exercise to enhance recovery from ADHD-related behavior among children. For instance, physical activity and exercise improve cardiovascular fitness and motor functions. The interventions also reduce anxiety and depression-related behavior and socialization challenges while improving self-esteem in children and young people with ADHD (Christiansen et al., 26). Elsewhere, significant associations exist between high levels of sedentary behavior and increased depression in children and adolescents. This association is also evident with reduced physiological wellbeing that covers feelings of life satisfaction and happiness (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1383). Sedentary behavior in children and adolescents increases their vulnerability to depressive symptoms by diminishing life satisfaction and happiness. Therefore, physical activity and exercise have an inverse correlation with depression. Regular physical activity helps children and adolescents break the cycle of negative thoughts and trigger the release of feel-good endorphins necessary for alleviating the risks of developing depressive symptoms.

Findings consistent with previous meta-analyses and reviews indicate inverse correlations between physical activity and depression. For instance, physical activity and exercise have a small positive impact and a significant moderate effect on depressive symptoms among children and young people (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1398). The interventions also appear to improve depressive symptoms in adolescents diagnosed with major psychological disorders in clinical settings. Elsewhere, physical activity prevents depression in children by allowing them to develop a better outlook on life as they build confidence, manage anxiety, and increase self-esteem and cognitive skills. Adolescents who continue participating in team sport during high school tend to report lower depressive symptoms in early adulthood than those with sedentary behavior (Rodriguez-Ayllon et al., 1398). Therefore, children and young people need regular physical activity and exercise to reduce their vulnerability to depressive symptoms that may persist to adulthood if left untreated.

In summary, increased physical activity improves cognitive functioning and self-esteem while alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression. For instance, physical activity changes the brain structure and function to generate a positive impact on children’s mental health. Increased engagement in physical activity and exercise interventions trigger the release of feel-good endorphins, endogenous cannabinoids, and other natural brain chemicals necessary for enhancing a sense of wellbeing in children and young people. Conversely, sedentary behavior correlates positively with stress, depression, and anxiety while exhibiting inverse correlations with cognitive functioning and self-esteem. These findings require schools and parents to monitor and guide children in undertaking at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous daily physical activity emphasizing aerobics to alleviate vulnerability to mental health problems. Undertaking physical activity as part of leisure and recreation, physical education, transportation, or house chores is also necessary for reducing sedentary behavior and improving the mental wellbeing of children and adolescents.

Works Cited

Biddle, Stuart JH, et al. “Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: An updated review of reviews and an analysis of causality.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise 42 (2019): 146-155.

Chaput, Jean-Philippe, et al. “2020 WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour for children and adolescents aged 5–17 years: summary of the evidence.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 17.1 (2020): 1-9.

Christiansen, Lasse, et al. “Effects of exercise on cognitive performance in children and adolescents with ADHD: potential mechanisms and evidence-based recommendations.” Journal of clinical medicine 8.6 (2019): 841.

Gilbert, Amanda S., et al. “Associations of physical activity and sedentary behaviors with child mental well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.” BMC public health 21.1 (2021): 1- 12.

Rodriguez-Ayllon, María, et al. “Role of physical activity and sedentary behavior in the mental health of preschoolers, children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sports medicine 49.9 (2019): 1383-1410.


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