Exercise helps Kids Cope with Stress

Stress can shorten your life and alter the development of your brain. So one of the biggest gifts a parent can give his kids is to help them cope with stress. And we’ve got good reason to think that parents can make a difference.

Research suggests we can protect kids from the worst effects of stress by providing them with warm, responsive parenting. And now a new study hints at another stress-busting tactic: We might buffer kids from stress by encouraging them to be physically active. Very physically active.

In a new study published by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers examined 258 eight-year-old Finnish children, fitting them with wrist-worn accelerometers that measured physical activity over a period of four days. At the end of that time, Silja Martikainen and colleagues sorted the kids into three groups – children who were highly active, moderately active, and relatively inactive.

The researchers also measured variations in the kids’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and they subjected the children to a bit of psychological stress in the laboratory–asking kids to solve math problems and complete a storytelling task.

On analyzing the results, Martikainen’s team found no difference in the children’s cortisol levels at home. But when it came to the academic challenges, the most active kids responded differently. They experienced lower cortisol levels during the stress tests.

Are highly-active kids less stressed-out by academic or social pressure? That’s the implication. But as professor of pediatrics Michael F. Bergeron notes in this article for the New York Times, we can’t be sure these kids experienced less stress overall. And, like all studies, says kinesiologist Disa Hatfield, this one has its limitations. It didn’t control for sugar intake, which can influence cortisol levels. Nor could the wrist accelerometers take accurate measurements of the time kids spent biking or swimming.

Still, the study is consistent with other research, including an experiment reporting that kids showed and felt less stress after taking a 1.6 km walk. And the research presents us with interesting questions. If our kids become more active, will they handle life’s daily stressors better? Can we help kids combat academic and social anxieties by encouraging them to exercise?

Future studies will help answer these questions. Meanwhile, the evidence is mounting that physical exercise benefits kids in ways that extend far beyond physical fitness.

More reading

For more about the benefits of exercise for kids, check out my Parenting Science review of the research, as well as my blog post, “Exercise improves math scores?!”

image by Jackson Elizabeth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / wikimedia commons

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Posted on November 19, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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