The importance of staying active is hard to overstate. Physical activity can help cardiovascular health, weight-loss (or maintaining a healthy weight), and mental health, as well as numerous other important aspects of personal well-being. Unfortunately, many people fall well below the recommended guidelines for physical activity: the World Health Organization recommends 150-300 minutes of activity per week, while the CDC recommends adults receive 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Unfortunately, many people have found that their normal fitness routines have been upended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a sedentary lifestyle as work and play transition to home. Even more concerning, many children and young adults are encountering the same struggles to stay active.
The health effects of exercise:
So why do so many doctors and health organizations insist that physical activity is an essential component of health? It’s easy to collect anecdotal evidence that exercising makes us feel better, live longer, and think more sharply, but modern studies have begun to unravel the scientific basis of these effects. For example, even 20 minutes of moderate exercise has a measurable effect on reducing inflammation and boosting the immune system (you can read a study by Dimitrov, et.al. on inflammation here). Additional studies have shown that exercise can benefit individuals with hypertension, or high blood pressure – aerobic exercise can decrease your systolic blood pressure, the higher number, by as much as 9 mm Hg. This is as much as many blood pressure medications (here’s a great starting point for information on hypertension and fitness)! Exercise has also been shown to correlate with a longer average telomere length. Telomeres are protective “caps” on the end of our chromosomes that naturally shorten with each cell division. Shortened telomeres are associated with age-related diseases, including cancer and heart disease, making them prime targets for extending life expectancy. Finally, numerous studies have linked physical activity to increased mental health, including improvements in depression, Alzheimer’s disease , and memory. Take note – in almost all cases these health effects require regular exercise routines to be effective.
Exercise in Children and Young Adults:
Let’s also briefly discuss the importance of physical fitness on kids. Children that are physically active tend to have better grades and classroom behavior, miss fewer days of school, and have improved concentration and memory performance. This activity can include individual or team sports, active play or recreational activities like biking, skating, or playing on a playground. In addition, many children benefit from a connection to nature and the natural world – walking or hiking through the woods, exploring a local stream, climbing trees, or collecting insects in a field provide both physical and mental stimulation that is hard to replicate indoors. Fortunately, outside play can be done safely and effectively even during the current pandemic.
A Call to Action
The science of exercise might have come a long way in the last few years, but the methods themselves can be as simple as you want them to be. It’s important to always stay within the limits of your body and your own ability, and to talk to a doctor if you are unsure of where to start, but scientific evidence shows that the health benefits of exercise are worth it. At the same time, encourage your students to be active whenever possible – brief moments of activity in the classroom can provide a break from sitting at a desk, as can moving the classroom outside for the period. Finally, consider incorporating environmental sciences experiments into your curriculum where possible. Collecting and analyzing water samples, exploring soil composition or the growth of plants, and examining air pollution can be great ways to encourage students to actively explore the world around them!