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Why sport is the key to healthier, happier children and young people

Written by Lucy Harvey on 20th April, 2020

Children and young people who live active lives are happier, healthier and perform better academically. In our latest blog we explore the different benefits that physical activity and sport can bring to your children and young people.

Why is being physically active so important?

The NHS recommends that children and young people should aim for an average of 60 minutes of physical activity a day, across a week. And they should participate in a variety of types and intensities to aid the development of movement skills, muscles and bones. So, why is being physically active so important for children and young people?

Children in the UK are currently experiencing worrying health issues the Association for Young People’s Health have revealed. Many of these issues can be reduced or avoided by physical activity and sport:

  • 1 in 5 school pupils aged 11-15 are obese
  • 1 in 4 young females show symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • 1 in 4 secondary school children say they do not get enough sleep
  • 9 in 10 young females and 8 in 10 young males do not meet the government guidelines for physical activity.

“Good health supports successful learning. Successful learners support health. Education and health are inseparable.” (World Health Organisation)

Keeping active not only keeps children mentally and physically healthy but also helps to improve their academic attainment. Research has shown that children who exercise regularly have better focus, memory and concentration during school. They also tend to achieve higher in maths, reading and writing when compared to those who don’t.


Physical activity vs. sport – does one bring more benefits?

Whilst any physical activity is important, the NHS recommends that children should take part in a variety of types and intensities of physical activity to get the most benefits. Their activities include walking, running, skipping, basketball, football, rugby, climbing; a mix of both physical activity and sport. 

Participating in these activities will reduce a child’s body fat, create strong hearts and circulatory systems, reduce the risk of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, strengthen bones and joints and reduce the risk of symptoms of depression and anxiety.

However, do some types of activities bring more benefits than others? Particularly when considering a child’s physical, mental, psychological and social health needs.

We took a look at some of the research exploring the difference between sport and physical activity, and found that team sports have shown to be associated with improved health outcomes when compared to individual physical activities, mostly due to the social nature of the way children participate.

There is also research that indicates that children who are active through sport early in their life are more likely to be physically active in adulthood, creating additional long-term health benefits for the individual and society.


The benefits unique to sport

When we delved further into the research we found that participating in team sport has been associated with fewer mental and physical health problems when compared with non-participation (Source).

When compared with children who are physically active, children and young people participating in team sport also benefit from:

  • Increased feelings of social acceptance (Source)
  • Decreased depressive symptoms (Source)
  • Decreased feelings of hopelessness and suicide (Source)
  • Increased feeling of life satisfaction (Source)
  • Better emotional self-belief (Source)
  • A reduction in body dissatisfaction (Source)


So, whilst any activity is good for physical health, sport brings additional benefits for children and young people’s mental and social health, above and beyond other forms of physical activity. There is also research that indicates that sports are associated with better physical health for participants, however there is little evidence to pin-point why this might be (Source).


Five ways we can encourage children into sport

If your children or young people aren’t already participating in sport here are a few tips that you can use to encourage them to begin participating:

1. Build a routine for physical activity first
Building a routine is essential to helping a child reach and maintain the correct levels of physical activity. Doing this will also help them build the habit over the lifetime.

2. Find activities they enjoy with their friends
Encouraging children to participate in activities they do with their friends will mimic the social aspect of sport. It will also allow them to find a physical activity they enjoy. Swimming, football in the park or tennis on the street are perfect for this.

3. Encourage breaks in the day with sport
The NHS recommends children take regular breaks through the day. Incorporating sport into these breaks is a great way to get children involved in sport, and they’re fun for everyone involved! They don’t need much equipment - keep a ping pong, tennis ball, football or netball handy. You could even come up with your own games!

4. Take time to find a sport they enjoy
Not every sport is made equal. Encourage children to choose a new sport if their first pick doesn’t work out. Trying a few different sports will help them find something that sticks!

5. Encourage them to take part in multiple sports
If resources allow, make more than one sport available to your children and young people. Not only will this improve their physical activity levels, but they will benefit from the different disciplines each sport brings. They might also turn into the next Sir Steve Redgrave! Some of the world’s greatest athletes all participated in multiple sports growing up.

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