Study Finds Aerobic Exercise May Help Kids With Behavioral Health Disorders

Most parents know that in order to perform well in school, kids need a strong support system, nutritious diet, and ample sleep. But with an increasingly digital world, it can be difficult to encourage kids to get moving or settle down for the night. While most school-aged children get 9.5 hours of sleep a night on average, experts actually recommend they get 10 to 11 hours every night. And since child obesity rates continue to soar, it’s no surprise that nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.

However, there’s something that can help our kids sleep better and start good habits early on: regular exercise.

Physical activity is critical for any child, but there’s a specific group of kids that may stand to benefit from regular aerobic exercise. One study has found that when kids with complex behavioral health disorders exercise during the day, they tend to perform better in school.

Behavioral health disorders, or BHD, include Bipolar Disorder, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (or ADHD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Anxiety Disorder. Anxiety disorders are actually the most common mental illness in America; more than 40 million U.S. adults ages 18 and over have them, and one in eight children are affected by them. Left untreated, kids with anxiety disorders have a much higher risk of poor school performance, decreased social experiences, and an increased risk of substance abuse.

That’s why it’s so pivotal that something as simple as exercise can help improve the quality of life for children with anxiety. The study found that kids who engaged in aerobic activities during the week were 32% to 51% less likely to act out in the classroom. While these positive effects were more pronounced on the days they actually did the exercises, the impact actually carried over to the following day at school.

Because evidence has shown that kids with BHD are less likely to participate in physical activity, researchers created a special exercise routine with these children in mind. Unfortunately, playground games and team sports can make for unwelcoming environments and increased anxiety and exclusion. This means many BHD-affected kids have a decreased to desire to participate in physical exercise in general, which can lead to a lot of health problems down the line.

To combat this, researchers designed an aerobic cybercycling curriculum for a seven-week stretch, wherein kids would use bikes two times a week for 30 to 40 minutes during each session. In contrast, the study’s control group participated in their standard physical education course, which has no aerobic focus. Not only were the kids with BHD more engaged with the cycbercycling class, but they also experienced a much higher level of exercise.

While introducing such exercise programs in public schools for special education classes would come at a cost, lead researcher April Bowling highlights that it’s a worthwhile investment for the success of these students.

“If we really want our kids to do well, they need more movement during the school day, not less,” she said. “That’s important for their learning, and for their relationships with their teachers and other kids in class.”

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