New research published in The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM) reveals that exercise could be key to helping children cope with stress.

The study identified that sedentary children exposed to stressful events produced more of the hormone called cortisol, which is linked to stress, than kids who were very active.

The cardiovascular benefits of exercise in children is already very well established, but it also has a significant impact on their mental health too. One study found that regular exercise can help children do better in math.

The study is the first of its kind to link physical activity in children with stress hormone responses.

According to the lead author of the study, Silia Martikinen, of the University of Helsinki: “The findings suggest physical activity plays a role in mental health by buffering children from the effects of daily stressors, such as public speaking,”

A total of 252 eight year old children participated in the study. The researchers monitored their physical activity by making them wear accelerometer devices and measured cortisol levels by taking saliva samples.The children were given tasks involving mathematics and story-telling.

They separated the children into groups (active, intermediate, or sedentary) based on the amount of physical activity they did.

The active group exercised for longer and more rigorously than the children in the others, the researchers found that their cortisol levels didn’t increase as much during the tasks.

In contrast, the cortisol levels went up significantly among n those in the sedentary group.

Martikainen said:

“Clearly, there is a link between mental and physical well-being, but the nature of the connection is not well understood. These results suggest exercise promotes mental health by regulating the stress hormone response to stressors.”

A previous study on healthy college aged students identified a similar association between exercise and stress. Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Public Health discovered that physical activity reduces anxiety, and maintains decreased levels of stress when faced with emotional events.

In conclusion these findings prove that doing exercise on a regular basis can help in stabilizing stress levels during the day.

It is important that children’s physical activities are suitable for their age. Researchers from the University of California’s Irvine and Miller Children’s Hospital found that kids who undergo brief periods of very intense exercise may develop temporary asthma-like symptoms.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist