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Covid-19 and School Budgets: How Important is Physical Education?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), life expectancy in the United States has dropped over the past several years in large part because of mental health issues, drug overdose and suicide. Alarmingly, the suicide rate among those between the ages of 10 to 24 years rose 56% between 2007 and 2017. Clearly our young people feel increasingly isolated and hopeless. In 2020, quarantine, school closures, and social distancing related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have added stress and emotional challenges for children and adolescents as well as for adults. Fear and anxiety about uncertainties can be overwhelming. Social distancing can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase existing stress and depression. Now more than ever, the public and private sectors should encourage participation in mental health interventions that assist vulnerable youth in coping with these challenges.

Fortunately, research has shown that planned, regular engagement in physical activity (PA) leads to both mental and physiological improvements and a reduction in illness and death. In fact, physical activity has been shown to work better than prescription medicines in the reduction of long-term depression. Simply put, physical activity acts as a protective measure against not only chronic disease, but depression, anxiety, and suicidal behaviors as well. Schools can play a critical role in helping society address mental health issues by offering students an opportunity to engage in planned exercise sessions during physical education classes or physical activity during recess periods.

Long-Term Effects of Regular, Planned Exercise on Mental Health

  • PA can reduce the risk of temper, mood, and anxiety disorders

  • Individuals that engage in high levels of PA experience fewer episodes of depression compared to their sedentary counterparts

  • PA alleviates long-term depression and anxiety

  • PA has fewer side-effects than medicine with longer-lasting results

Short-Term Effects of Exercise on Mental Health

  • Alleviates acute psychological distress immediately

  • Reduces daily stress, anger, confusion, depression, and tension

  • Enhances mood, memory, processing speed, and executive cognitive functioning

  • Increases feelings of energy

Effects of Regular, Planned Exercise on Suicidal Behaviors

Youth and adults who engage in 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity for 75 minutes per week:

  • Are less likely to contemplate suicide

  • Are less likely to contemplate suicide as a result of being bullied at school

  • Have increased ability to cope with sadness, stress, and anger

It is glaringly clear that planned exercise helps prevent, cope, and cure mental health problems. Ironically, physical activity at school has actually been decreasing! School-age children spend most of their day sitting in class at school. In other words, most of their day is sedentary. Gym classes and recess have been eliminated or shortened as school budgets fall short. To make matters worse, sedentary youth become sedentary adults. The growing trend of individuals living a highly sedentary lifestyle has reached epidemic levels. According to studies cited by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:

  • Adolescents spend approximately 40% of their waking hours at school and only engage in MVPA 5% of that time

  • Adolescents spend nearly 30% of their waking hours at home and only engage in MVPA 5% of that time

  • In the past 20 years, obesity in adolescents has risen from 5% to > 20%

Surely, we can do better for our young people than this. It is time we realized the interdependent nature of the mind and body in education. A healthy body tends to lead to a healthier mind and vice versa. Physically active students learn and feel better. During COVID-19, school budgets will suffer. We must be sure to protect the whole child, mind and body. Recess periods and physical education classes that offer regular, planned exercise is key to helping students cope as we navigate this uncertain season together.

Find school health resources for offering planned exercise for students and wellness programs for employees here.

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