Do Children Who Get More Exercise Handle Stress Better?

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Do Children Who Get More Exercise Handle Stress Better?          

Jim Windell


          If creativity training can help children become more resilient and better prepared to deal with stress, can exercise also help kids cope with stress?

          Physical activity and exercise seems to help adults relieve stress in their lives. Might not exercise also help kids?

          That was the question raised by researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland. A research team led by Dr. Manuel Hanke and Dr. Sebastian Ludyga from the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health at the University of Basel examined the effect of physical activity on children’s stress levels. The results of their study were reported recently in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

            To study the relationship between physical activity and children’s stress levels, 110 children between the ages of 10 and 13 wore a sensor tracking their daily movement over the course of a week. The researchers then brought the participants into the lab on two separate occasions to complete a stressful task and a non-stressful control task. For the stressful task, the researchers used the Trier Social Stress Test for Children. Each child had to read a story with an open ending and then had five minutes to prepare before using their notes to tell the rest of the story for a panel. What they didn’t know in advance was that the preparation time was intentionally kept so short that they would have an insufficient amount of time to prepare. In telling their stories, usually after about a minute they had exhausted what they had come up with – yet they still had to fill five minutes and think something up on the spur of the moment.

          This stressful task was followed by a seemingly simple arithmetic task in which participants were asked to repeatedly reduce a number in the high three digits by a certain value over the course of five minutes.  The stress in this task is primarily caused by errors, which require the participant to restart the task from the beginning. In the control task, which was conducted on a separate occasion, the children also had to read a story, but they then discussed general questions about the story with a researcher without any pressure to perform. In both sessions, the researchers took saliva samples at regular intervals before and after the tasks in order to measure cortisol levels. The children’s physical stress reaction was determined by the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

          According to project director Sebastian Ludyga, “We wanted to determine whether physical activity makes children more resilient under laboratory-controlled circumstances.” explains project director Sebastian Ludyga.

          The results showed that the participants who got more than an hour of exercise per day, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends, did in fact produce less cortisol in the stress task than the children who were less active.

          “Regularly active children seem to have a reduced physiological stress reaction in general,” notes Manuel Hanke, lead author of the study. Even in the control task, which involved an unfamiliar situation, making it still somewhat unsettling for the participants, there was a difference in cortisol levels between more and less active children – though overall cortisol levels were lower than in the stress task.

         A possible explanation for this finding could be that cortisol levels also increase during exercise. “When children regularly run, swim, climb, etc., the brain learns to associate a rise in cortisol with something positive,” says Sebastian Ludyga. “The body’s reaction always has a cognitive component as well: this positive association helps to prevent the concentration of cortisol from rising to too high a level in exam situations as well.”

         To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Hanke, M., Looser, V. N., Bruggisser, F., Leuenberger, R., Gerber, M., & Ludyga, S. (2023). Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and reactivity to acute psychosocial stress in preadolescent children. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.


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