Using Play to Reach Happiness How exercise can improve mental health in youth

By: Alison Trenton

In Canada, only one out of five children who need mental health services receives them, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Yet, there are many simpler ways of receiving help, which have the potential to leave a lasting impact on someone’s life.

Although not always the solution, current research shows that physical activity can have a positive influence on an individual’s mental health.

The benefits of exercise

“Exercise is a non-drug way of helping people live longer, live better and live healthier,” said Catherine Sabiston, an Exercise Psychology professor at the University of Toronto.

Sabiston’s research involves looking at the relationship between physical activity and mental health, as well as how mental health and emotional well-being can tie into people’s exercise patterns and behaviors.

“There are so many physical, mental and social benefits of physical activity, there is no reason at all someone could argue they don’t need to exercise,” she said.

Since the positive effects of exercise reach physical, mental, and health aspects, this targets multiple regions of the body.

Exercise can improve bone health, flexibility, help in the prevention of type one and type two diabetes, as well as help in the prevention and treatment of depression and anxiety, said Dr. Bonnie Cameron, a pediatrician and doctor in the Rheumatology department at SickKids Hospital in Toronto.

As a general pediatrician, Dr. Cameron works with a variety of children in different health states, but she is accustomed to working with children who suffer from Juvenile Arthritis at SickKids.

Dr. Cameron doing office work at SickKids Hospital
“We come into this world wanting to play. As children and adults, we are meant to use our bodies,” she said.

However, it is hard to establish exercise guidelines for children to follow because of how these rules are classified in the “adult world.”

“I think the biggest issue in the question of exercise is that people are asking ‘how much should I exercise,’ and I believe the ‘should’ is the problem,” said Sabiston.

Sabiston’s research has shown that being sedentary is often the problem, and patients who get on their feet more and sit less have seen improvements in their mental health.

“I’m very much against the idea of guidelines, because each person is different,” she said.

Aside from the tradition forms of physical activity, people often forget that walking to school or playing with friends are good ways for children to get exercise.

“In general, people who exercise tend to have better mental health across the board. Studies have proven the strength in this relationship, so it suggests that you can expect this outcome,” Sabiston said.

Children swimming at Camp Ma-Kee-Wa

Using Sport to Build Confidence

In many cases, playing on a team, or doing group activities is a great way to build confidence in youth.

“By engaging in group activities, it provides people with a way to achieve at very different levels, and that is satisfying and helpful for mental health outcomes,” Sabiston said.

Mental health issues are becoming an increasingly bigger issue in today’s youth.

An estimated 10-20% of youth in Canada are affected by a mental illness or disorder, according to the CMHA.

“Half of my day as a general pediatrician is related to patients with mental health issues. It’s a huge part of my practice,” said Dr. Cameron.

Is exercise the new MEDICINE?

Yet, rather than rushing to write a prescription, doctors are now recommending exercise as a way to combat mental illness.

“Every day and every moment I recommended exercise as a way to help mental illness,” said Dr. Cameron.

Exercise has been shown to improve people’s mood, their subjective well-being, and lower depression and anxiety symptoms, because it can act as a distraction.

“Having exercise as an outlet allows for someone to not think about their day to day problems,” said Sabiston.

However, although exercise has a positive outcome in most cases, there are times when it should be approached with caution.

“There is a sliver of my medical encounters which involve individuals with eating disorders,” said Dr. Cameron.

Eating disorders are one of the exceptions to the exercise rule, because rather than helping these patients, it is putting them at risk. Doctors often have to discourage exercise, until these patients are able to maintain a healthy body weight.

“In these cases they are using exercise as a mistaken tool to change their body images,” Dr. Cameron said.

Programs Offered

No matter how a child is suffering, there are programs offered to help make a difference and promote a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

The Jays Care Foundation and CameronHelps are both exercise-targeted programs, which work with youth suffering from mental health issues.

The Jays Care Foundation specializes in working with children from indigenous communities where there is a severely high rate of suicide among youth.

Robert Witchel announcing a $600,000 donation to the YMCA of Greater Toronto. (Photo courtesy of The Jays Care Foundation)

“We’re a small part of a mental health strategy that aims to get kids engaged, and build self-esteem, confidence and resiliency,” said Robert Witchel, the executive director.

Building confidence can allow a child to grow up to be better adjusted, making coping with stress and new challenges an easier task.

“If we do a good job, it could save someone’s life,” Witchel said.

CameronHelps has a more personal connection to youth struggling with mental health issues.

David Harris, the Founder and CEO of the charitable organization, lost his son to suicide in 2005. As a way to reach out and help other families, he started CameronHelps.

“I’ve worked with CameronHelps before, and it is a great program available for youth,” Sabiston said.

Their goal is to reduce the stigma surrounding youth mental illness, build awareness of the issues, and promote the positive aspects that physical health can reflect on mental health.

CameronHelps' Bold and Cold event in Toronto on Dec.4, 2016

These two programs have shown great success because of their accommodating natures, but most importantly their sustainability.

“Programs for promoting exercise for people with mental health is one of the biggest challenges in the community,” said Sabiston.

Her reasoning being a majority of programs only last for a small portion of the year, which is not enough time for it to have a noticeable impact.

“Community programs are almost a better approach because they are going to continue throughout the term rather than just be a one-off program,” she said.

How to Get Help

Although there are programs to help, it is not always necessary, because there is not a right or wrong way to exercise, as every child’s mental health cannot be treated the same.

The most important factor is to speak up, in order to receive the best treatment possible.

Once depression is recognized, receiving help can make a difference for 80% of people who are affected, according to the CMHA.

Promoting a healthy, balanced lifestyle, can help ensure a healthy mind for a child.

“Encourage everyone you know to do more exercise tomorrow than they did today. Together, as a team, we can fight this,” said Sabiston.

Created By
Alison Trenton
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