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The importance of movement for mental health

There are lots of reasons why someone might choose to get active: they might want to get fit, or pick up a new sport. Or maybe they got a pet, and now must walk the dog every day. But movement can have a huge impact on mental health too, particularly for children and young people. Getting those steps in can improve self-esteem, help with focus, improve our mood, reduce stress, and help with anxiety. 

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Out and about

From a stroll in the park to a football match, exercise often means heading outside. Nowadays, most of us spend the majority of the day indoors so that time in the fresh air is vital, particularly for young people. Being outdoors can help with mindfulness – a practice that helps people feel more present in the moment, as you’re able to focus on the world around you and notice the different sensations. It can also improve anxiety, providing a distraction from social media and other pressures young people face today. 

It has been proven that a lack of Vitamin D can lead to depression-like symptoms in some people. So, getting outside and enjoying the sun can help prevent low mood in more ways than one. 

But getting outside and active has another unlikely benefit. For some children who have been targeted by criminal groups, it can be a key part of processing and moving on. Josh was targeted by older men when he was just 11 years old, and they gave him cannabis and forced him to commit crimes. 

When his support worker Anita picked up on his love for horses, she started taking him riding which acted like a form of animal therapy for him.

Chemical changes

A group of teenagers in red jerseys stand in a huddle with a coach on a football field.

Chemical changes

Your body is full of different hormones that flow through you and create different responses. One such chemical is endorphin. Endorphins are also known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone. They tell your brain that you’re feeling good and help reduce stress, improve your mood, and even act as a pain reliever! 

Endorphins are often released during exercise when your heart rate increases. This has become known as a ‘runner’s high’, but it doesn’t take high-intensity exercise to produce those vital chemicals. A long walk or some yoga is often all it takes to produce that elated feeling.

early intervention

This is why exercise can be recommended as an early-intervention technique. Young people can get that much-needed release of endorphins, helping to improve their low mood. If young people find a routine and exercise that suits them, then this can help them to cope better with their mental health before it reaches crisis point.

A teenager with long brown hair and light skin sits on a windowsill and looks out of the window, sad

The long wait for mental health support

When children and young people struggle with their mental health and emotional wellbeing, they’re often left waiting until they reach a crisis point to receive the help they need. The longer a child has to wait, the worse they might feel. But by understanding the need for early intervention, we can ensure young people receive timely support when they first need it.

An individual experience

An individual experience

Exercise can sometimes feel like a chore rather than a benefit, especially for young people. Their bodies are changing — and rapidly — which can make school gyms or PE uniforms uncomfortable and a little daunting. And with worsening mental health issues in the UK, young people’s relationships with exercise run the risk of growing obsessive or disordered. Also, the rising cost of living means many sports can feel financially inaccessible to lots of young people. 

Creating spaces for young people to get moving without associating it with any pressure of weight loss, muscle gain, or improved performance can help improve their relationship with exercise. Movement doesn’t have to just be PE at school or competitive sports. It can be a walk with friends, a YouTube workout, or a family bike ride. 

Three teenagers walk past some houses, smiling and putting their arms around each other.

An individual experience

Having more low-cost spaces for young people to move can also play a pivotal role — whether that’s dance lessons at a village hall, or a free football pitch in the middle of a city.

Moving shouldn’t feel like a chore— it should be fun and relaxed. And while movement can play a big role in improving young people’s mental health, it also isn’t the only route. From poetry to crafts, and from mindfulness to confiding in someone they trust, there are many ways to help young people feel more at peace in their own minds.

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2024 is Movement. Head to the Mental Health Foundation website to learn more.