It is recommended that young people aged 5 to 17 years of age undertake at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity per day. Regular maintenance of this level of activity increases their physical fitness, reduces body fat, enhances cardiovascular and disease risk profiles, builds bone health and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Further, children who exercise regularly are more likely to be physically active, and therefore healthier, in adulthood. Even though the World Health Organisation definition of health incorporates physical, mental and social health domains, research providing evidence to the physical activity guidelines does not specifically address children’s social health and cognitive (thinking) abilities.
Social health is extremely important for youngsters. The Children’s Society’s Good Children Report 2022 cite children’s lack of social interaction during the pandemic as being highly significant in contributing to a current harmful downward trend in their mental health and well-being. Taking part in sport does address the social needs of children and improves this aspect of their health and well-being above and beyond improvements attributable to their participation in more general physical activity.
Specifically, team sport, such as football or hockey, seems to be associated with improved mental health outcomes compared to individual activities (e.g. gymnastics or running) due to the social nature of the participation. Team sports provide an opportunity for children to learn to work well with others and effectively contribute to a group. The sense of support and acceptance plays an integral role in reducing depressive symptoms and leads to healthy relationships with adults and their peers.
Similar to social benefits, physical activity and children’s cognitive functioning (problem-solving, decision-making, communication) is intricately linked. Throughout childhood, physical activity consistently proves to benefit children’s ability to think effectively. This is especially true when youngsters take part in team sports compared to other types of sports and physical activity.
The dynamic nature of team sports require extra cognitive challenges such as appreciation of others, active concentration and a working memory. Therefore, learning coordinated movement patterns within an energetic team sports setting are of particular value to children’s problem-solving and thinking abilities.
What is even more interesting is the fact that cognitive benefits acquired from taking part in team sports can transfer to different contexts, such as the classroom. This is achieved through the process of neuroplasticity – the brains ability to change its structure and function - fuelled by physical activity.
Therefore, the next time children decide to play team sports, remember that they are becoming healthier, happier, are more able to socially engage with others and becoming smarter.
John Allan (2016) Brain resilience: Shining a light into the processes of outdoor adventure learning, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 16 (1), 3-14
I could see my daughter gaining her confidence back after lockdown – every day she told me about the different games & challenges!