By Jesse Seiden, Research Associate for Trusted Sports Foundation, 25 October 2010
For decades, the research conducted on the benefits of physical activity has led to one clear-cut, obvious conclusion: it’s good for us. More specifically, physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on not only our general health, but also on our psychological well-being and social relationships. Using research from the American Heart Association (AHA); the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (PCPFS); and various other organizations and scholars on the subject, I will present an argument in support of promoting physical activity in youth through both organized sports and the advocacy of regular fitness, and why these are necessary components for successful physiological, psychological, and social enhancement. We will begin with an analysis of the physical health benefits of regular physical activity.
The American Heart Association (2010) has outlined specific recommendations for children and adolescents regarding the amount of daily physical activity required to remain healthy and elude certain cardiovascular threats, such as “obesity, high blood pressure…and diabetes” (“Physical Activity and Children,” 2010). For such dangers to be avoided, the AHA posits that “60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day” is a great solution, reducing the “risk of cardiovascular disease” (“Physical Activity and Children,” 2010). Of all the possible negative outcomes of physical inactivity, there is one that is being deemed by some as an epidemic in America: obesity. The numbers of and increases in childhood obesity in recent years have revealed some staggering statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2010) roughly “17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese”– a significant increase since the 1970s (Childhood Overweight and Obesity, 2010). There are certainly genetic factors that play into obesity, but one element in particular plays quite a significant role as well: caloric expenditure.
Burning more calories than one consumes is what leads to weight loss and, by the same token, consuming more calories than are burned off leads to weight gain. The CDC (2009) notes that “less than one-third…of high school students” are meeting the “recommended levels of physical activity”, and that between the years of 1991 and 2003, day-to-day “participation in school physical education among adolescents dropped 14 percentage points…to 28%” (Contributing Factors, 2009). Without appropriate support from parents, teachers, and peers, children may not understand the negative effects of physical inactivity. It is thus important for these support groups to encourage children to engage in regular daily exercise, if not enrollment in an organized sport. The CDC has further reported that, in a study of obese 5 to 17 year olds, “70%…had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease and 39% had at least two risk factors” (Obesity, 2010). These numbers are reason enough for schools and other public environments to promote physical activity in children across the country. The American Academy of Pediatrics has backed this notion, stating that, modification “is desperately needed in opportunities for physical activity in child care centers, schools…and other community settings” (Krebs et al., 2003, p. 426). The numbers presented in this section are but a mere portion of the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Just as there are benefits to consistent physical activity on overall health, there are also benefits that influence psychological health.
It has long been documented that exercise promotes psychological health; can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety; and can lead to positive self-perception. In a review of literature on the subject, Taylor et al. (1985) concluded that physical activity and exercise can relieve symptoms of both “mild-to-moderate depression” and anxiety, and “are associated with such mental health benefits as improved self-concept and confidence” (Taylor et al., 1985, p. 200). While this information may seem dated, recent literature reviews support this notion. Daniel Landers (1999), a leading researcher in the field, found that there is a strong correlation between exercise and enhanced mental well-being, specifically, “in the case of a reduction of anxiety and depression” (Landers, 1999). Furthermore, it should be noted, “access to physical activities…and opportunities to participate in games or sports are…factors affecting sports involvement” (Strauss, et al., 2001, p. 897). In other words, while physical activity can be beneficial to psychological health in youth, there must first be total access to being able to do so. Parents who don’t promote physical activity are lending their children to risks that, by no fault of their own, can have devastating effects. It is therefore necessary for parents to advocate participation in organized sports or various other physical activities.
Depression and anxiety are only a subset of issues related to psychological health. Self-confidence, self-efficacy, and self-esteem are, generally, indicative of whether or not one is psychologically fit. Strauss et al. (2001) note that “self-confidence…and one’s perceived ability to be active (i.e. self-efficacy)” correlate to levels of physical activity (Strauss et al., 2001, p. 897). It should be noted, however, that low-to-moderate levels of physical activity don’t necessarily correlate to psychological well-being, although Strauss et al. (2001) found that “increased levels of high activity were primarily associated with increased self-efficacy” (p. 899). Simply put—more activity equals better perceptions of self. Why is this important? How one perceives oneself has been a determinant in whether or not one engages in physical activity, including one’s participation in organized sports, which may have an affect on “the development of self-esteem in adolescents” (Strauss et al., 2001, p. 897-98). Moreover, while self-esteem and self-efficacy are rooted in the psychological sense of self, they also have an equally social component to them; a component that is not only defined by one’s idea of self, but that is also formed by the ever-changing interactions within the social world.
Youth and adolescents’ participation in organized sports can thus effect how one thinks of oneself and, at the same time, can affect social health. For the purposes of this essay, “social health” will, essentially, refer to peer-acceptance and the formation of genuine social relationships that yield social support from others. When analyzing how children perceive their physical competence (self-efficacy in sports) the PCPFS (2000) concluded that “youth who report stronger beliefs about their physical competencies are more likely to enjoy and sustain interest in continuing involvement than children who report lower levels of physical competence” (PCPFS, 2000, p. 2). This is not to say that non-athletes do not feel like competent individuals, but this could play a role in a child’s decision to continue their involvement in organized sports. If this is in fact the case, parents, coaches, teachers, and peers should be more inclined to suggest continued participation or, at least, promote physical activity in order to alleviate such feelings of physical incompetency. Strauss et al. (2001) supported this idea, as they found that “self-efficacy was a major correlate of high-level activity in children” and that “programs that enhance children’s beliefs in their ability to exercise may actually increase motivation to be physically active” (p. 900). Clearly, there is a relationship between physical activity levels and self-efficacy, but the latter is not simply a result of internal processes, but rather a combination of such processes and external social support.
For example, the PCPFS noted, “parents who recognize and reinforce their child’s interest and participation in physical activity…convey the message that physical activity is an important domain” (PCPFS, 2000, p. 3). Simply stated, when parents support their child’s interest in physical activity, the more likely that child is to not only be physically active, but is also more likely to have a high sense of physical self-efficacy, allowing them to participate confidently in organized sports or physical activities that are also supported by various social groups such as teachers, coaches, and peers who, by default, are acting as pillars of support for how one feels, socially and psychologically.
The information presented here offers a look at the benefits that regular physical activity can have on physiological, psychological, and social health. The reduction of cardiovascular health risks, the curbing of obesity, and the overall enhancement of physical health in children should be reason enough to consider the recommendations made by the AHA, CDC, and the organizations and scholars above. The same can be said for both psychological and social health in youth, as becoming more physically active can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety. Socially, sports and physical activity can elicit feelings of connectedness, increase self-efficacy, and can result in positive reinforcement from parents, teachers, coaches, and peers—a necessity for many children and adolescents during the formative years of their lives. Physical activity has been shown to be an effective tool in battling many different negative outcomes of a sedentary lifestyle, and should be considered a front-line defense in the promotion and advocacy of healthy activities for children.
• American Heart Association. (2010). Physical Activity and Children. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/Physical-Activity-and-Children_UCM_304053_Article.jsp
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Childhood Overweight and Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Contributing Factors. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/causes.html
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/AAG/obesity.htm
• Krebs, N.F., et al. (2003). American Academy of Pediatrics. Prevention of Pediatric Overweight and Obesity. 424-430. Retrieved from http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/pediatrics;112/2/424.pdf
• Landers, D.M. (1999). The Influence of Exercise on Mental Health. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Retrieved from http://www.fitness.gov/publications/digests/mentalhealth.html
• President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. (2000). Motivating Kids in Physical Activity. Research Digest. Series 3; Volume 11. Retrieved from http://www.fitness.gov/publications/digests/digest900.pdf
• Strauss, R.S., Rodzilsky, D., Burack, G., & Colin, M. (2001). Psychosocial Correlates of Physical Activity in Healthy Children. American Medical Association. 155, 897-902. Retrieved from http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/reprint/155/8/897
Taylor, C.B., Sallis, J.F., & Needle, R. (1985). The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health. 100 (2), 195-201. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1424736/pdf/pubhealthrep00100-0085.pdf