Exercise plays an important role in helping children cope with stressful situations, according to a recent study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
When children are exposed to everyday stressors, the research discovered that sedentary kids had spikes in their cortisol levels; cortisol is a hormone linked to stress. The most active children had almost no surge in their cortisol in similar situations.
“The findings suggest physical activity plays a role in mental health by buffering children from the effects of daily stressors, such as public speaking,” said the study’s lead author, Silja Martikainen, MA, of the University of Helsinki, Finland.
The study monitored physical activity and cortisol levels of eight-year-old children. The 252 participants wore accelerometer devices on their wrists to measure physical activity. The team took samples of their saliva to measure cortisol levels. To measure reactions to stress, children were assigned arithmetic and story-telling tasks. The study is the first to establish a link between physical activity and stress hormone responses in children.
The children were grouped into three categories – most active, intermediate and least active. The most active children’s cortisol levels were the least reactive to stressful situations.
“Clearly, there is a link between mental and physical wellbeing, but the nature of the connection is not well understood,” Martikainen said. “These results suggest exercise promotes mental health by regulating the stress hormone response to stressors.”