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The physical benefits of kids leading an active lifestyle, including better heart health and a decreased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, are well known. But a growing body of research suggests there are significant mental benefits as well, whether it’s lowering stress levels or helping to treat anxiety and depression. A new report released by Participaction on Tuesday draws attention to this link, and by doing so, hopes to encourage kids in Canada to get moving more.

The Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, released by the non-profit organization dedicated to promoting healthy living and physical fitness, found that only 35 per cent of five- to 17-year-olds and 62 per cent of children ages 3 and 4 are getting the recommended physical-activity levels for their age group and that this may be having an impact on the health of their brains.

“For better brain health, all children and youth should be physically active on a regular basis. In addition to physical health benefits, physical activity also improves cognition, brain function and mental health,” according to the statement that accompanies the report.

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The Globe and Mail’s Dave McGinn spoke to Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of the report card and director of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute’s Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group, about how physical activity affects mental health and what parents can do to help make their kids more active.

Why did you want to make brain health the focus of this year’s report card?

We have been disproportionately focused on obesity and the physical benefits of physical activity. The urgency – this could actually have a positive impact on their school grades, on the conduct with their classmates, on their mental health, on their self-esteem – we think has the potential for more immediate resonance, especially with those who are not inclined to embrace the other messages about physical health. The final reason is to acknowledge that the physical activity and neuroscience research is exploding and expanding.

The link between physical activity and mental health seems particularly important considering the large number of kids who are now dealing with mental-health issues.

I believe that the reason there’s this unprecedented grappling with true mental health related issues is because of the lifestyles we’ve adopted. And it’s perpetuated by a lack of physical activity, a lack of outdoor time, too much time on the screens, which has all kinds of mechanistic implications to mental health and a reduction in sleep. So reversing that will help to manage existing mental health related issues.

What is the link between physical activity and anxiety?

The evidence suggests that physical activity can help to prevent and to manage or reduce it. Not in everyone. The sources of anxiety in individuals vary, of course, and the severity varies as well. But because of the physiologic impacts of physical activity, the sedative type of results that come from it: postexercise reduction in resting heart rate, postexercise reduction in blood pressure, the release of neurochemicals that are feel-good chemicals -- these happen naturally with physical activity, and of course they are associated with reduced anxiety.

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You’re referring to dopamine and serotonin, correct?

Yes, and even endorphins if it’s long enough and intense enough of an activity. But it can also serve as a distraction. Whatever the source of the anxiety, if you sort of remove yourself from it, if you’re lost in whatever it is you’re doing – you’re swimming lengths or whatever it is you’re doing for physical activity – it’s a distraction, which sometimes for some people can reduce the acute effects of their problem.

Does all of that also explain how physical activity might help with depression as well?

Some of the mechanisms are similar. These are complicated disorders that aren’t homogeneous. But yes, the healthier neurotransmitter balance, the physiologic responses to physical activity that are sort of natural uppers, the potential connection with people, interactions that might occur as a result of the physical activity and that might be stunted as a result of not doing physical activity, are things that can [help treat] the symptoms of depression or anxiety.

So what can parents do to get their kids moving more?

There’s no new magic bullet. Getting outside is the easiest way and the most accessible to get kids to move more. So allow kids a little bit more roaming distance – when you put kids outside and say you can’t roam past the yard they’ve got limited opportunities. One way to increase physical activity is to limit screen time. Driveway chalk – the kids just light up. They’re doing hopscotch and they’re drawing things and they’re running around. That’s all you need, or a ball or a skipping rope. Or sometimes just going to the park. But you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to commit to it.

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