Exercise for Anxious Children – Why it Matters and How to Get Kids Moving

Is your child struggling with anxiety? Get them moving…

It’s official. Lack of exercise has zoomed to the top of the list of the greatest health problems for children, and with very good reason. Inactive kids not only face a bigger risk of obesity and heart disease, but they have a higher chance of suffering from anxiety and related mental health woes. On the upside, you as a parent can definitely do something about it. That something, as you may guess, is getting your kids off the couch and into a world of activity.

Couch Potato Children

The official word on lack of exercise as adults’ greatest health concern for children comes from the sixth annual C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. The 2012 results mark the first year ever that lack of exercise nabbed the top slot. In fact, the top three slots from 2007 to 2011 were consistently held by childhood obesity, drug abuse and smoking. That’s no longer the case, and we may have technology to blame.

“Time once spent on physical or outdoor activity has been replaced by television, computer and video game time,” the Coalition for Healthy Children notes. At the same time, anxiety and depression rates in kids have been on the rise for the past 50 to 70 years, according to Psychology Today. Television began the hit the American living room scene in the 1950s, offering a very acute coincidence that may not be a coincidence at all.

Anxiety-Ridden Couch Potato Children

Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State associate professor of psychology, conducted a study not on the effects of TV but on those of video games, another form of physically idle entertainment. He found kids who became addicted to the games were also more likely to become riddled with a host of mental health issues. Gentile explains:

Once they become addicted, pathological gamers were more likely to become depressed, have increased social phobias, and increased anxiety. And they received poorer grades in school. Therefore, it looks like pathological gaming is not simply a symptom of depression, social phobia or anxiety. In fact, those problems seem to increase as children become more addicted. In addition, when children stopped being addicted, depression, anxiety and social phobias decreased as well.

Another quote, this one from a San Diego fourth-grade student published in Grit magazine, perhaps sums up the penchant for kids’ addiction to video games, TV and other electronic devices:

“I like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Step Counts Counter Anxiety

All this sitting around can do bad things to your couch, not to mention your kid. A study published in Acta Paediactrica had 70 kids wear hip pedometers for a one-week period to gauge if activity levels had any bearing on mental health.

It did.

The group of kids who achieved more than 12,000 steps per day had a much stronger sense of what the study called “global self-esteem” than the group that achieved fewer than 9,200 steps per day. For the record, “global self-esteem” is simply a buzzword for someone’s overall regard for his or her worth as a person. In other words, kids that walked fewer than 9,200 steps generally felt more worthless than those who walked more than 12,000. Amazing what another 2,800 steps may be able to do!

Getting a kid to achieve more than 12,000 per day doesn’t mean the child never gets to sit down, either. Many folks can achieve at least 10,000 steps per day by going about their daily activities and sneaking in a bit of extra walking here and there.

Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is one sneaky tactic. Another is parking farther from the mall entrance than usual. Leave your car at home and walk to the store if your errands are lightweight and nearby. If adults can easily slip 10,000 steps into their day, it should be even easier for kids to rack up the 12,000 or more, as long as they do more than slump in front of a TV or computer screen.

In one more clever twist, the study noted the step count of 12,000 per day equates to the 60 minutes of recommended moderate-activity activity in which children should engage daily. How do you like that?

What Anxiety Does to Your Body

In its simplest terms, anxiety is a form of stress. A lot of it is based on worries for the future, with worries that can be rational, irrational or have no chance of happening in a zillion years. Perhaps you child fears a shark attack in the middle of the night and you live in landlocked Iowa.

Even if the worry may seem ridiculous or illogical, the effects of anxiety on the body are quite real. Anxiety hits with a hard punch to the nervous system, setting off the biological alarm system we have that was designed to protect us danger. You’re probably familiar with the system’s nickname of the fight-flight response.

The rush of adrenaline and stress hormones that sluice through your body during this process is preparing you to face the danger by either fighting it or running for the hills. While this serves you well when confronted by something like, say, an attacking shark, it’s not as useful when you’re lying in bed in Iowa with no sharks for more than 1,000 miles.

Physical symptoms include shaking and trembling, sweaty palms, a racing heart, difficulty breathing and dizziness. The brain reacts just as quickly, typically flooded with fear, until the cortex has a chance to assess the situation. The cortex is where your thinking takes place, sometimes far from your biological reactions and sometimes even farther from reality.

If the cortex perceives a real danger, the body continues its flow of adrenaline to help us fight or flee as the case may be. If the cortex perceives no threat, it sends a signal to deactivate the alarm system, the nervous system calms down and you go about your merry way. The problem arises, however, when things that are not truly a threat in reality appear as a threat to your mind.

What Exercise Does to Your Body

Exercise can help control the stress that shows up as anxiety, or any stress at all for that matter. One theory says exercise stimulates the neurotransmitters in the brain that work to elevate mood and sooth emotions. While the American Council on Exercise points out this particular theory has never been proven, it does say there is no dispute that exercise can help alleviate stress and, therefore, anxiety.

The movement reduces nervous tension and anxiety in your muscles. It also induces your body to send out a relaxation response in the form of seemingly magical brain chemicals known as endorphins. Endorphins double as natural painkillers and can improve sleep, soothe your mood, alleviate stress, decrease tension and give your self-esteem a boost. That relaxation response can work directly against the fight-flight response of anxiety, neutralizing tension and fear.

Exercise as an overall health booster is nothing new, nor is its known benefits for mental health issues. A Public Health Report article published way back in 1985 proclaimed the big impact of a little moving around. Exercise was shown to help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as boost self-image, cognitive functioning and social skills. Added bonuses of exercise included being an effective supplement in the treatment of drug abuse, alcoholism and negative responses to stressors. Don’t reach for that drink, reach for that barbell!

While one hour of exercise per day is the recommended dose, you can begin to reap the anti-anxiety effects in as few as five minutes of aerobic activity, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Exercise vs. Traditional Mental Health Treatments

Traditional modes of treatment for anxiety typically consist of therapy, medication, or a combination. Throw in exercise and you may have a no-fail triad that helps kick anxiety to the curb. Does that also mean exercise is an effective enough treatment to cancel your kid’s therapy and medication? Not necessarily.

While exercise has been helpful for anxiety and depression, it is most useful on its own for mild or moderate levels of such issues. A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine found exercise worked as well as a primary treatment for mild to moderate depression as well as a number of anxiety disorders.

Exercise also proved to be a great supplement to medication in an overall treatment plan but not as powerful at reducing severe anxiety as psychopharmaceuticals can be. Don’t chuck that bottle of medication just yet, but do get your kid off the couch and out moving around.

How to Sneak Exercise into Your Kid’s Daily Life

First off, perhaps you don’t want to call it “exercise,” which can bring up images of sweating, straining and not having much fun. Instead call it “playtime,” “activity hour,” or a “first one off the couch gets out of chores for the day” session.

Secondly, lead by example. Your kids will most likely be more inclined to engage in physical activity if mom or dad does it, too. This doesn’t mean you have to hop on a tricycle and circle the block, but it does mean you should help create activities you can do together and have your own daily bout of activities that show your kids it’s a way of life for everyone.

The third trick is to try activities your kids can find stimulating and fun. Take your pick from the list below or create your own variations. Although your overall goal is to get your kid engaged in an activity for at least one hour each day, you can break the hour into smaller segments until this exercise-as-a-way-of-life thing becomes as natural as, say, flipping on the computer or TV.

3 Easy Exercise Ideas for You and Your Kids

Play ball! Ball is not the only game that counts as exercise, and turning exercise into a game truly bills it as play time instead of boring toil. Throwing a baseball, kicking a soccer ball and playing a game of tennis all count. The more vigorous the movement, the effective it is at flushing out adrenaline and other stress-causing hormones. Check out your local recreation center to see what types of courts or even lessons may be available for you and your kids.

Make walking a game. Pedometers can do much more than help researchers perform studies. They provide great motivators for ensuring you and your kids get adequate activity throughout your day. Outfit each family member with an inexpensive pedometer and set up step count goals for each member each day. The first one to reach his or her step count wins!

Go gaga for yoga. Yoga’s benefits are not limited to adults and it makes a great activity for kids. Join a class or pick up a few yoga DVDs for you and your kids to do at home. Yoga works large muscle groups that, when contracted and relaxed, signal the brain to send out certain neurotransmitters that induce relaxation and alertness. Yoga also gives you a triple dose of exercise by working on your body, you mind and your soul.