On March 8, 2023

Exercise is good medicine for the mental health of Vermont kids

Dear Editor,

Today, more than ever, our children are struggling with their mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but the issue needs to be recognized all year long. We simply can’t ignore the problem any longer. Between mass shootings, the pandemic, and social media our children are suffering.
Covid-19 alone has increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. And, according to the Child Mind Institute, “Evidence is mounting that there is a link between social media and depression. In several studies, teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13% to 66%) higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time.”

Gov. Scott has been a leader in advocating for mental health services for the state of Vermont including directing funds to a mobile response program that brings mental health services directly to families. He is now taking further steps to help improve the mental and physical health of school age kids in the state by partnering with our organization, the National Foundation for Governors’ Fitness Councils. We just launched the 2023 DON’T QUIT! Fitness Campaign in Vermont where three elementary or middle schools will be gifted a $100,000 DON’T QUIT! Fitness Center for showing innovation in fitness, health and wellness. (School nominations will be accepted until Friday, March 26, 2023. Visit natgovfit.org/apply-now, then click on your state to download the application).

While I don’t have all the solutions to improving mental health in this great country of ours, I can tell you from personal experience that exercise has a profound impact on the mental health of our children.
I’ve advocated the benefits of exercise for our kids for more than 40 years. Exercise not only combats childhood obesity, but it also improves academic performance and mental health. The American Psychological Association reviewed 114 studies and found that “young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being.”

The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services found that “the number of children ages 3-17 years diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29% and those with depression grew by 27%” In Vermont alone, more than 6,000 children aged 12-17 have depression and between 2018 and 2021, the state witnessed a 60% increase in kids ages 3 to 8 years with some sort of behavioral health condition.

Building a solid foundation of fitness at a young age will help lay the groundwork for them to become strong, healthy and happier adults. I find that when kids build stronger bodies, they also build confidence and self-esteem. The research supports this too. Low intensity exercise improves brain function and makes kids feel better while high-intensity workouts 3-4 times a week can reduce clinical depression.

I’ve been working hand in hand with governors across the country, putting DON’T QUIT! Fitness Centers in elementary and middle schools. The enthusiasm for working out and getting fit is through the roof and I expect the results to be the same for Vermont. School administrations are beginning to understand the urgency and importance of providing fitness resources to their students and staff. Our DON’T QUIT! Fitness Centers become an integral part of the fabric of the community and help create lasting positive change.

While the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) invests in critical strategies to grow the mental health workforce and expand access to mental health services, these strategies will take time to implement. However, getting our children out exercising is a tangible benefit that can be done now. Introducing physical activity and fitness to our kids is good medicine. It will help them maintain a healthy weight, improve mental health and ultimately enrich their quality of life.

The bottom line is that we must act now by prioritizing our children’s mental health. If your community lacks mental health resources, exercise is a strong tool that can be implemented immediately. If your child is feeling sad, angry, stressed, or anxious, lead by example and go for a walk together, kick around the soccer ball, or do some jumping jacks or push-ups.

Our children are our most precious resource. When our kids are mentally healthy and strong, the future of our nation will be strong. DON’T QUIT!

Jake Steinfeld, owner of Body by Jake and the chairman of the National Foundation for Governors’ Fitness Councils.

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