Exercise is good medicine for the mental health of children in Wyoming

Today our children struggle more than ever with their mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but the issue needs to be recognized throughout the year. We simply can no longer ignore the problem. Between mass shootings, the pandemic and social media, our children are suffering.

COVID-19 alone is increasing depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. In addition, since April 2020, pediatric emergency department visits have increased dramatically for school-aged children and adolescents. And, according to the Child Mind Institute, “Evidence is mounting that there is a link between social media and depression. Several studies found that teens and young adults who spent the most time on Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms had significantly higher rates of reported depression (from 13% to 66%) than those who spent the least time.

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Gov. Gordon has already made the health and wellness of Wyomingites a priority and recently launched a website, Governor’s Mental Health Summit & More, that focuses on working on solutions to improve mental health. He is now taking further steps to help improve the mental and physical health of school-age children across the state by partnering with our organization, the National Foundation for Governors’ Fitness Councils. We just released the 2023 DON’T QUIT! Fitness campaign in Wyoming where three elementary or middle schools awarded a $100K DON’T STOP! Fitness center for showcasing innovation in fitness, health and wellness (School nominations are accepted until Friday, March 26. Go to https://natgovfit.org/apply-now/ then click your status button to download the short application ).

While I don’t have all the solutions to improve mental health in this great country of ours, I can tell you from personal experience that exercise has a major impact on our children’s mental health.

I have been advocating the benefits of exercise for our children for over 40 years. Exercise not only fights childhood obesity, but also improves academic performance and MENTAL HEALTH. The American Psychological Association reviewed 114 studies and found that “young people who exercise more experience less depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-esteem, life satisfaction and psychological well-being.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that “the number of children ages 3-17 diagnosed with anxiety increased by 29% and the number of children diagnosed with depression increased by 27%.” In Wyoming alone, 14% of children ages three to 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, slightly above the state’s national average of 12%.

Building a solid foundation of fitness at a young age lays the foundation for them to become strong, healthy and happier adults. I find that when kids build a stronger body, they also build confidence and self-esteem. The research also supports this. Low-intensity exercise improves brain function and makes children feel better, while high-intensity exercise 3-4 times a week can reduce clinical depression.

I’ve worked hand-in-hand with governors across the country, with DON’T STOP! Fitness centers in primary and secondary schools. The enthusiasm to train and get fit is through the roof and I expect the results to be the same for Wyoming. School boards are beginning to see the urgency and importance of providing fitness resources to their students and staff. Our DON’T STOP! Fitness centers are becoming an integral part of the community’s fabric, helping to create lasting positive change.

While the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is investing in critical strategies to grow the mental health workforce and expand access to mental health services, these strategies will take time to implement. However, it is a tangible benefit that can now be achieved by getting our children into sports. Introducing physical activity and fitness to our children is good medicine. It will help them maintain a healthy weight, improve mental health and ultimately enrich their quality of life.

The bottom line is that we need to act now by prioritizing our children’s mental health. If your community lacks mental health resources, exercise is a powerful tool that can be implemented immediately. If your child is feeling sad, angry, stressed, or anxious, set a good example by taking a walk together, kicking around the soccer ball, or doing some jumping jacks or push-ups.

Our children are our most precious resource. If our children are mentally healthy and strong, our nation’s future will be strong. DO NOT STOP!

Jake Steinfeld is president of the National Foundation for Governors’ Fitness Councils; whose sole mission is to provide DON’T STOP! Fitness centers to elementary and middle schools across the United States. For more information about the DON’T STOP! Fitness campaign, visit www.natgovfit.org.

Exercise is good medicine for the mental health of children in Wyoming

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