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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Healthy Minds in Active Bodies

Promoting child and youth mental health through physical activity and exercise

Caleb Leduc, Hons BA, BEd, MHK, PhD Student

Reprinted from the "Mind-Body Connection" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 10 (2), p. 34

Mental health is a resource for daily life and includes our ability to think, feel, act and interact in ways that allow us to cope with challenges that arise while enjoying life. Mental health, as it relates to children and youth, is about healthy social and emotional development as they learn to experience, regulate and express a variety of emotions. Positive mental health in children and youth allow them to be creative, learn, try new things and take risks.

In Canada, more than 800,000 children between the ages of four and 17 experience a mental health condition, for which the majority never receive formal treatment. More than one in five boys and one in three girls report feeling depressed or low at least once or more on a weekly basis.1 It has also been observed that, from grade six to grade 10, the number of children and youth who have confidence in themselves is cut in half. And, 29% of children and youth with a disability have sought medical assistance for mental health issues.2

The recent rise of mental health challenges faced by Canada’s children and youth is matched by a decrease in physical activity participation levels. Only 9% of boys and 4% of girls meet Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines. The guidelines recommend that children and youth ages five to 17 get at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day. The activity can be accumulated over the course of the day, in increments of at least 10 minutes each.3

Only a quarter of children with a disability report being active at all, while 59% of youth with a disability report they seldom or never play active games.4

During the after-school time period (3:00 pm – 6:00 pm), sedentary activity is pervasive (e.g., watching television, playing video and computer games). One study found that kids are sedentary 59% of the time between 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm, averaging only 14 minutes of physical activity.5

Physical activity improves mental health in young people

Engaging in physical activity has been proven effective in improving the mental health of children and youth. As children and youth exercise their body, they begin to feel their mood being enhanced. And, there is a dose-response relationship; that is, the more physical activity they do, the more they feel their mood improving.6 The benefits are equally available to children who are obese and overweight as compared to those of a typically classified ‘healthy’ weight.7

Additionally, the mental health benefits of physical activity appear to be equally available to both boys and girls. Engaging in physical activity has a protective effect on body image. And, importantly, this occurs regardless of noticeable physical changes or weight loss.8

Engagement in physical activity for children and youth with a disability is critically important. Being physically active has been shown to reduce the incidence of depression and isolation, and prevent the development of secondary disabling conditions in these children and youth.9 Further, participation in physical activity promotes independence, and challenges and improves physical skills, self-esteem and feelings of self-worth in children and youth with a disability.9

Physical activity influences two underlying contributors to positive mental health. The first is “working memory.” Working memory is our ability to retain and manipulate information in the short-term and is critical for focusing and making sense of the world. Increasing physical activity and exercise levels in children and youth during after-school programs has been shown to improve working memory and increase cognitive processing and performance.10,11

The second underlying contributor is sleep. Being active physically decreases the amount of time it takes children to fall asleep and increases their total sleep time.

A resource for after-school care providers

After-school programs present an ideal opportunity for engaging children in physical activity. These programs are delivered by a diverse range of recreational, educational, and social organizations that include community centres, schools, non-profit organizations and child care centres.

The Canadian Active After School Partnership (CAASP) is a comprehensive and collaborative initiative of six national organizations: Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability, Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity, Canadian Parks and Recreation Association, National Association of Friendship Centres and Physical and Health Education Canada.

One of CAASP’s current priorities is promoting mental health within “quality active after-school programs.” These “quality active” programs are evidence-based and provide an intentional, child-centred, community-based and needs-driven environment for children (for a full definition visit CAASP, in collaboration with the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), recently published an online resource titled Healthy Minds in Active Bodies* (May 2014). This PDF is designed for supervisors of after-school programs that are being delivered to children and youth of all ages and genders.

Healthy Minds in Active Bodies includes a practical checklist to help program supervisors reflect on and enhance current programs, practices and policies. It also provides tools and resources in five specific areas: promoting mental health among girls and young women, promoting mental health among children with a disability, talking with children (see sidebar), talking with program staff, and talking with parents.

In sum, whether you are a parent, educator, volunteer or front-line worker, you are encouraged to help children and youth explore the ways being physically active can improve their mental health and well-being.

About the author
Caleb teaches in the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. He has an extensive background in health and physical education at the elementary through post-secondary levels. Since early 2013, Caleb has collaborated with the Canadian Active After School Partnership on several initiatives, conference presentations and resource documents
  1. Public Health Agency of Canada. (2011). The health of Canada’s young people: A mental health focus.

  2. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (2011). Disability in Canada: A 2006 profile. Gatineau, QC: author.

  3. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. (2012). Canadian physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines.

  4. Steeles, C.A., Kalnins, I.V., Jutai, J.W. et al. (1996). Lifestyle health behaviours of 11- to 16-year-old youth with physical disabilities. Health Education Research, 11(2), 173-186.

  5. Active Healthy Kids Canada. (2011). Don’t let this be the most physical activity our kids get after school. The Active Healthy Kids Canada 2011 report card on physical activity for children and youth. Toronto: author.

  6. Biddle, S.J.H. & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: A review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45, 886-895.

  7. Ahn, S. & Fedewa, A.L. (2011). A meta-analysis of the relationship between children’s physical activity and mental health. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 36(4), 385-397.

  8. Campbell, A. & Hausenblas, H.A. (2009). Effects of exercise interventions on body image: A meta-analysis. Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 780-793.

  9. Murphy, N.A. & Carbone, P.S. (2008). Promoting the participation of children with disabilities in sports, recreation, and physical activities. Pediatrics, 121(5), 1057-1061.

  10. Etnier, J.L., Salazar, W., Landers, D.M. et al. (1997). The influence of physical fitness and exercise upon cognitive functioning: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19, 249-274.

  11. Kamijo, K., Pontifex, M., O’Leary, K. et al. (2011). The effects of an afterschool physical activity program on working memory in preadolescent children. Developmental Science, 14(5), 1046-1058.

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