Why do we need scientific studies to convince us that common sense was right in the first place? On one hand, sometimes common sense is not exactly right and studies disprove myths and legends. On the other hand, we are limited as humans in our knowledge and insight such that biases and blind spots can distort common sense. Regardless, at the end of the day, a good study which confirms our prior suspicions does give us some credibility when urging others to make a lifestyle change for their health. The study in focus today serves as another proof that physical exertion needs to be a priority for our next generation. As our world stumble under the weight of a broad mental health crisis, we can know that exercise helps our children be more resilient, and we can use that knowledge to help them.
The authors built on prior studies showing that regular exercise lowers different markers of stress in adults. They wanted to know if this applied to children as well, given that helping millions of children now would be better than waiting until they were adults. They looked at 110 children ages 10 to 13 and measured their activities levels for 1 year with a sensor. They then used a structured stress test, combined with cortisol testing, to estimate the level of stress caused by the test. Further, they looked at signs of brain waves indicating stress though they have yet to publish that analysis.
Our adrenal glands produce stress at a baseline level for normal day-to-day functioning. This baseline level supports a number of immune, metabolic, and other functions. Too much or too little can lead to symptoms and illnesses. When our bodies are stressed, the adrenals pump out more cortisol to keep inflammation down and other systems from being damaged. This works well in the short run when the stress is short-lived and the adrenals can return to normal production levels. Long-term, ongoing high cortisol levels, however, can cause problems. Having resiliency in our bodies such that we don’t need as much cortisol in response to stress can avoid these long-term issues.
With the increasing levels of stress in our world, we want ourselves and our children to withstand such pressures and thrive without the negative consequences. While working to limit the stress exposures is part of the solution, some stressors are unavoidable without major societal changes; we have to deal with them. Some too are just a part of life. While exercise is not the only means to build resilience against this stress, this study does encourage us to consider way to increase the physical activity of our children.
Children who incorporated an hour or more per day of exercise seemed to have lower levels of cortisol during the stress experiment. This is a reasonable goal for children who are not caught up in the demands of work or other responsibilities. The adults in their lives and the leaders of our society can provide at least an hour per day for these children to build resilience. The children will not likely think to themselves, “Oh, I need to build my resilience by exercising an hour per day”. The adults, however, can leave time for active play and encourage kids to have fun in normal kid activities. This is a very simple and very inexpensive preventive therapy.
The authors suspect that the increase in cortisol which occurs during exercise works later through one of two possible mechanisms. On one hand, it could be the simple adaptation to stress that means the body does not need as much cortisol for other stress. On the other, it could be the association of adrenal cortisol with pleasurable exercise. Either way, this will likely benefit the children when faced with stressors by lessening the chance of long-term adverse consequences. We don’t have studies to prove this, but again, we can go on reasonable common sense until proven otherwise (and have no reason to anticipate exercise will harm the child outside of very rare circumstances).
With this study and common sense in mind, we can help our future generations to live healthier lives by making room for their exercise and encouraging it. In families, be sure your children have it hardwired into their daily routine. In communities, we can make sure schools allow some time for exercise during their school day. In our medical offices, we can remind parents of this study and others. Now, put down your smartphone and move those muscles yourself.
Manuel Hanke, Vera Nina Looser, Fabienne Bruggisser, Rahel Leuenberger, Markus Gerber, Sebastian Ludyga. Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and reactivity to acute psychosocial stress in preadolescent children. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 2023; DOI: 10.1016/j.jsams.2023.07.010
Thanks to Science Daily:
University of Basel. “Active children are more resilient.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 September 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/09/230905124926.htm>.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.