No play can make a child a dull one, says an adage.
Experts agree that physical activity is an essential aspect of a child’s growing up phase mainly for its overall health and well-being. It is known to bestow bodily benefits such as fitness, boost a child’s immunity and reduce the risk of chronic health conditions later in life.
Physical exercise also has a significant impact on a child’s mental health. The World Health Organization says that 10 per cent of the world’s children and adolescents silently suffer from some form of mental disorder.
Health hazards for the young
An ever-growing technological evolution has made two generations of children born post-2010 digital natives. Called Gen Z and Gen Alpha, these children prefer to spend their leisure time playing online games either alone or with friends.
According to WHO, the majority of obese children now are from developing countries, and obesity among children there is 30 per cent higher than in developed countries.
A cross-sectional study based on data from the National Family Health Survey-4 found that among 1,76,255 Indian children aged 0-59 months, i.e. up to the first five years, 5,130 children were obese. The number of obese children was higher in urban areas than in rural areas.
In the book Public Health in Developing Countries, a chapter titled `Obesity in school children in India’ identifies several factors for it. Among them are heredity or family history, socio-economic reasons, gender, age, and lack of physical activity – perhaps due to lack of access to open public spaces.
It lists dietary habits such as overeating of unhealthy food and carbonated drinks, constant exposure and access to high-calorie food items, and even a growing tendency of parents to feed their children with the help of playing television shows or videos on mobile phones.
The pandemic effect
Research also bears out the fact that absence of physical activity can affect one’s mind. According to a 2022 study by Dr Aehsan Ahmad Dar, assistant professor, Department of Psychology, SRM University, Andhra Pradesh, COVID-19, the lockdown and restrictions since early 2020 caused immense stress among adults and children alike. Anxiety and depression increased among children.
“[The peak period of] COVID was tough. Like many other school children, I was unable to meet my friends as we were all stuck at home doing virtual classes,” says 16-year-old Sonam Wangchuk. “None of us were allowed to step out to play. Being confined to home for months, with no access to any form of exercise outdoors, I started feeling depressed. Only when life got back to normal I realised how important it is to go to school and play with my friends,” says this student of Greendale Senior Secondary School in Gangtok, Sikkim.
Ill-effects of a sedentary lifestyle
We asked Wangchuk how he overcame the lack of physical activity and overuse of devices during the lockdown. “I started working out at home to beat depression. It helped me until after the lockdown was over and we could go out to play once again,” he says.
A 2023 review of 21 studies based on 2,441 children and adolescents found that physical activity reduced their depression. The study also found that 10 to 15 sessions of physical activity a month resulted in significant relief from symptoms of depression.
Signs of mental health issues
According to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health agency of the US, these are the symptoms in mentally upset children:
- Feeling of loneliness, tearfulness or hopelessness
- Refusing to go to school and hence poor attendance
- Poor performance at school
- Lack of sleep or sleeping too much
- No interest in meeting family and friends
- Lack of interest in regular activities such as hobbies and sports
- Poor appetite and weight loss; or eating too much and weight gain
- Body ache
- Lack of energy
- Suicidal thoughts
- Self-injury or self-destructive behaviour
“Depression in children can be associated with poor mental and physical health and social dysfunction. It is, therefore, vital that children and adolescents include physical activity in their daily routine,” says Dr Elizabeth Jasmine, psychologist at the Institute of Psychology and Research, Bengaluru. “For children aged 3 to 5 years, it is important to stay active throughout the day except when it is nap time.”
The best exercise for children
Aerobic exercise is best suited for youngsters in the 6-17 age group, say research studies and the CDC. “Aerobic exercises such as walking, running or doing anything that makes the heart pump fast helps the body to circulate blood and keep the arteries clear. It also helps to boost mood, reduce health risks and manage chronic conditions,” says Dr Jasmine.
- CDC suggests 60 minutes of walking or running every day.
- A child should do some form of rigorous activity at least thrice a month.
- For strengthening muscles, adolescents can do workouts like climbing or push-ups at least thrice a week.
- Running and jumping go a long way in strengthening the bones.
F Samraj says that in the long run exercise is the key to staying fit. A physical education teacher at St Germain’s School, Bengaluru, from 1975 to 2006, Samraj has trained some of the best athletes in the country — Roger Binny, current president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India; and Jude Felix, former two-time Olympian and Indian hockey skipper, to name a few.
Samraj emphasises that parents should teach children self-care which involves physical activities for their overall well-being. “Physical activity keeps one sharp and focussed, and helps one to deal with stress, anxiety and depression,” he adds.
How can parents help?
Shalini Agrawal, a businessperson from Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, has two grown-up children. She says parents can take certain actions to improve their children’s mental and physical well-being. She suggests:
- Devising a regular physical activity schedule from an early age as it helps the child to inculcate the habit easily.
- Gently breaking the child’s excessive use of television, mobile phones or gaming gadgets and instead encouraging the child to take up hobbies like reading, art, craft or music.