The Physical and Emotional Benefits Kids Gain from Physical Education

what exercise teaches kids


  • The ongoing mental health crisis among the young became a national emergency during the Covid-19 pandemic. 
  • School-based Formal Exercise Training (FET) is: 
    • Essential to developing mentally and physically healthy, happy, and intelligent children. 
    • A continuation of the mental and physical health benefits of playing in early childhood. and thus a logical choice for protecting and promoting the mental health of our young.
  • Although pretending is an essential element of play, it develops a consciousness of striving and aspiring. FET guides children from “pretending” to real-life striving and develops the self-efficacy of children as they learn how to emotionally cope with and cognitively focus on the challenging task of overcoming obstacles inherent to the realization of their aspirations. 
  • In and out of the FET setting, an adult caring environment is critical to children successfully learning how to cope and focus on the challenge at hand. We all want our children to succeed academically, mentally, and physically, but unless our children learn to believe they are cared for and to care for others, our noble aspirations will fall short of the mark. 
  • Beware of adults who use caring to exploit children. Your children are being targeted by shrewd adult marketers who, like Pausanias, the pedophile in Plato’s Symposium, know how to flatter children and make them feel understood and cared for to exploit the innocence of children to maximize gains that serve the marketers’ self-interest. 


Even in good times, childhood and adolescence are difficult periods, but recently the stress of being young has grown into a global mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Over the past three years, the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly rough on the young, escalating the ongoing mental health crisis among young people. Consequently, within the first year of the pandemic, a national emergency was declared for children and adolescents’ mental health.

 Unlike physical ailments, childhood mental health problems are more likely to go untreated and continue into adulthood. With our children in crisis and their future clouded by uncertainty, we need bold leadership: policymakers who will legislate initiatives to protect and enhance the mental health of our young. Foremost among these initiatives is a mandate for school-based exercise training.

A school-based exercise mandate is justified by the growing body of evidence showing the mental health of children and adolescents improves with physical activity. Even in clinical and healthy adult populations, exercise effectively treats anxiety and depression; develops greater self-esteem and coping self-efficacy under stress. The ability of exercise to develop children’s belief in their ability to successfully cope with and effectively perform under stress (i.e., self-efficacy) warrants a policy mandating school-based exercise programs

Exercise is essential for physical and mental fitness — but there’s even more 

We all know the demands life puts on us, but none of us are born with the knowledge of how to cope with and function effectively under the stress of life. Therefore, as a society, we are obligated to provide our children with lifetime tools to maximize the enhancement benefits of stress and “inoculate” them against its deleterious effects.

Caring Comes Before Learning

Whether it is exercise or some other daunting task, a caring environment is essential to teaching children how to maximize the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of stress. Regardless of race or socioeconomic status, all children need to know that they are cared for by their parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. Genuine caring is how adults earn the trust of children, and it is what makes children so eager to learn from and imitate the adults teaching them. 

Play is Serious Business

Children at play often imagine themselves as superheroes or some other superior power pitted against make-believe forces in a home environment that is safe. However, the environment outside the home is not always safe and the potential dangers are real. The real-world stress of school-based formal exercise training (FET) provides a safe, logical transition from the make-believe stress children confront when playing

Play reveals children’s aspirations to become more than just a child. The rapture that seizes children when enthralled in play reflexively compels them, as it does with artists and athletes, to boldly transform emotions into actions. Under the spell of playing, the line between make-believe and real is obliterated as children become heroic, beautiful, sublime creatures idealized in their imagination.

Although children will acknowledge they are “only playing” when some adult rudely breaks the spell, the seriousness of play is never broken. On the contrary, the serious nature of play, in all its emotional, aspirational, and idealized aspects, must endure as it primes children to confront the stress of real-world forces. And it is the caring of an exercise specialist that safely guides children in their quest to become the meaningful force they playfully imagine themselves to be. 

FET safely prepares children to leave the make-believe world of pretend forces and learn how to confront forces like gravity, the stress of life, or other real-world forces. That is why the climate in which children learn how to contend with these forces should be a continuation of the safe and caring home environment you, as parents, provide for your children. A well-trained exercise instructor will be sensitive to children’s usual fears and self-doubts and help children develop the emotional and cognitive skills to cope with self-defeating thoughts and focus on the task of mastering skills. 

Caring Makes Learning

It is the expression of caring that reassures your children the instructor is concerned about their well-being. Educators who create a caring/task-involved (C/TI) climate nurture and strengthen the self-efficacy of children confronting the stress associated with learning how to perform exercise and sports skills. Additionally, as instructors emphasize and reward effort and personal improvement (e.g., skill mastery) in this caring environment, they cultivate a desire to learn that is intrinsically motivated

The development of intrinsic motivation also gets a boost when the instructor directs the focus of children on learning from mistakes (versus shaming), thereby compelling them to keep trying rather than give up. Moreover, by cultivating a fair and cooperative C/TI exercise environment, children help each other to learn from their mistakes, eliciting more positive interpersonal relations. 

A Lifetime of Benefits

Learning to successfully apply these coping skills to stressful situations outside the controlled exercise setting (like taking a test) is part of the stress-inoculating effect of FET. In and outside the exercise setting, these coping skills help children develop a sense of ownership as they increasingly experience success as a product of their efforts to learn and master skills that were initially difficult. Moreover, children become more empowered with each positive experience that results from their striving.

Who Cares Matters

The power of caring has not been lost on marketers. Inundating children with more than 40,000 commercials annually, marketers use popular cartoon entertainment characters to combine caring, children’s play fantasies, and false promises of pleasure, fun, happiness, athletic ability, and instant gratification to teach children to be consumers.

However, commercial caring does not build self-esteem and self-efficacy but rather conceals the marketing strategy of making children feel like complete losers without the product being advertised. Instead of teaching coping skills, commercials teach children the nag factor despite the strain it will likely place on parent-children relationships.

Whereas FET empowers children, the deceptive, false promises of commercial caring tend to make children powerless. By the time children become adolescents, they are aware of being deceived by marketers, accept it, and feel they cannot do anything about it. This sense of powerlessness is characteristic of the mental health problems children and adolescents are experiencing globally.  

A Striking Contrast 

In a time when children and adolescent mental health has gone from a crisis to a national emergency, it reasons policymakers would capitalize on the mental health benefits of exercise and mandate school-based FET. Unfortunately, however, policymakers are tending to more important matters, leaving parents on their own to protect and promote the health rights of their children. So what can parents do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Raise awareness: 

      • Demand the health rights of your children.
        • Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children explicitly states your child has the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.
        • This includes education that promotes the health of your children.
  • Become Empowered: Strength in Numbers: 

    • No parent can overcome all of the social forces of inactivity and attitudes that justify denying your children their “right to exercise and be physically active.” 
    • Talk to other parents about the association between exercise and children’s mental health. 
    • Everyone is aware of the health benefits of exercise, but few do anything about it until everyone starts talking about it.
  • Build a coalition of other like-minded parents.
    • Lots of parents, especially moms (against drunk driving), have been very effective at getting legislation passed and changing attitudes about protecting the health rights of children. 
    • Join your local Parent Teacher Association. 
      • Get your local school board to do their part to protect your children’s health rights and right to exercise.
    • Get community health professionals on board.
    • Bring civic leaders, political and business, into the conversation. 
  • Demand high-quality exercise education and instructors based on the following Institute of Medicine Guidelines:
    • Instructors are certified physical education teachers.
    • A minimum of 30 minutes of FET per day, every school day for elementary school, and every school day for middle and high school students.
  • Realistic fitness standards for student achievement and high school graduation.

Children will learn to care about their health and the health of others when they learn society’s leaders are united with parents and teachers in caring about their well-being.



Evidence for the global pre-pandemic mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Kieling, C., Baker-Henningham, H., Belfer, M., Conti, G., Ertem, I., Omigbodun, O., … & Rahman, A. (2011). Child and adolescent mental health worldwide: evidence for action. The Lancet378(9801), 1515-1525.


Evidence supporting the post-pandemic mental health crises among children and adolescents worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic is presented by Samji, H., Wu, J., Ladak, A., Vossen, C., Stewart, E., Dove, N., Long, D., & Snell, G. (2022). Review: Mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and youth – a systematic review. Child and adolescent mental health27(2), 173–189.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2022). AAP-AACAP-CHA declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. October 19, 2021.


 World Health Organization. Improving the mental and brain health of children and adolescents. 


Guo, Z., & Zhang, Y. (2022). Study on the interactive factors between physical exercise and mental health promotion of teenagers. Journal of Healthcare Engineering2022.


World Health Organization. (2022). Promoting physical activity through schools: policy brief. Based on a recent review of the exercise and mental health literature, Biddlle et al., support calls for a greater policy emphasis on physical activity for young people precisely because of the growing body of scientific evidence showing regular physical activity protects against deficits in mental health and supports cognitive function in children and adolescents. Biddle, S. J., Ciaccioni, S., Thomas, G., & Vergeer, I. (2019). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: An updated review of reviews and an analysis of causality. Psychology of sport and exercise42, 146-155.


Ganjeh, P., Meyer, T., Hagmayer, Y., Kuhnert, R., Ravens-Sieberer, U., von Steinbuechel, N., Rothenberger, A., & Becker, A. (2021). Physical Activity Improves Mental Health in Children and Adolescents Irrespective of the Diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)-A Multi-Wave Analysis Using Data from the KiGGS Study. International journal of environmental research and public health18(5), 2207. 


 DeBoer, L. B., Powers, M. B., Utschig, A. C., Otto, M. W., & Smits, J. A. (2012). Exploring exercise as an avenue for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Expert review of neurotherapeutics12(8), 1011–1022. 


Nebiker, L., Lichtenstein, E., Minghetti, A., Zahner, L., Gerber, M., Faude, O., & Donath, L. (2018). Moderating effects of exercise duration and intensity in neuromuscular vs. endurance exercise interventions for the treatment of depression: a meta-analytical review. Frontiers in psychiatry9, 305.


Zamani Sani, S. H., Fathirezaie, Z., Brand, S., Pühse, U., Holsboer-Trachsler, E., Gerber, M., & Talepasand, S. (2016). Physical activity and self-esteem: testing direct and indirect relationships associated with psychological and physical mechanisms. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment12, 2617–2625. 


Bernstein EE, McNally RJ. Exercise as a buffer against difficulties with emotion regulation: A pathway to emotional wellbeing. Behav Res Ther. 2018 Oct;109:29-36. http://doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.07.010  


 The concept of “maximizing” the benefits of stress and inoculating against its negative effects is the very essence of the overload principle of exercise training and similar, if not identical, to the mechanisms underlying medical inoculations. In both cases a stressor (exercise or pathogen) is imposed upon or injected into the body but in a right measure; i.e., it does not injure or cause disease but allows the body to build-up resilience to the overload or pathogen such that subsequent exposure does not stress the body because it is inoculated against the overload or pathogen. The stress inoculation concept was developed by the cognitive psychologist Donald Meichenbaum to treat individuals with anxiety disorders but its effectiveness has made it applicable in non-clinical settings including in sports and exercise. (Meichenbaum, D. (2017). Stress inoculation training: A preventative and treatment approach. In The evolution of cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 101-124). Routledge). Of particular relevance to this article is the successful application of stress-inoculation training among adolescents (Hains, A. A., & Ellmann, S. W. (1994). Stress inoculation training as a preventative intervention for high school youths. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy8(3), 219-232, http://doi:10.1016/0140-1971(92)90045-7)


Gopnik, A. (2016). In defense of play. The Atlantic. 


 This section has benefitted from Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo ludens, a study of the play-element in culture. Beacon Press, pp. 16-25. 


This entire “Caring Makes Learning” section has primarily benefited from the work of Mary Fry and her colleagues (Fry, M. D., Guivernau, M., Kim, M. S., Newton, M., Gano-Overway, L. A., & Magyar, T. M. (2012). Youth perceptions of a caring climate, emotional regulation, and psychological well-being. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology1(1), 44). Other sources that contributed to this section include the work Nell Nodding (Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford review of education38(6), 771-781) and the work of Shervington et al. (Shervington, D., Sanders, T., Evans, K., Head-Dunham, R., Carter, P., Bu, T. T., McClain, R. P., Teverbaugh, L., Waguespack, J., Lee, A., Lenox, A., Moore, S., Dennis, L., Berryhill, D., Jordan, K., Wolfe, E., Alexander, C., Darensburg, R., Bullard Jr., R. N…Bardell, K. (2018). Called to care: Promoting compassionate healing for our children


Meichenbaum, D. (2017). Stress inoculation training: A preventative and treatment approach. In The evolution of cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 101-124). Routledge.


Kunkel, D., Wilcox, B. L., Cantor, J., Palmer, E., Linn, S., & Dowrick, P. (2004). Report of the APA task force on advertising and children. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association30, 60. If you are interested in learning more about how children are manipulated by marketers check out Schor, J. B. (2014). Born to buy: The commercialized child and the new consumer cult. Simon and Schuster; Linn, S. (2005). Consuming kids: Protecting our children from the onslaught of marketing and advertising. Anchor.


Truman, E., & Elliott, C. (2019). Identifying food marketing to teenagers: a scoping review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity16(1), 1-10.


The climate crisis has created an overwhelming sense of powerlessness among young people and this sense of powerlessness is believed to be contributing to the growing mental health crisis. Prilletensky et al. are explicit about the health effects powerlessness has on young people and note that when empowering life conditions are present children experience more positive health outcomes. Prilleltensky, I., Nelson, G., & Peirson, L. (2001). The role of power and control in children’s lives: An ecological analysis of pathways toward wellness, resilience and problems. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 11(2), 143-158.


Assembly, U. G. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. United Nations, Treaty Series, 1577(3), 1-23.


United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2015). International charter of physical education, physical activity and sport. It is worth noting that the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic raised social awareness of the right to exercise (Messing, S., Krennerich, M., Abu-Omar, K., Ferschl, S., & Gelius, P. (2021). Physical Activity as a Human Right?. Health and Human Rights, 23(2), 201).


 Oklahoma City was ranked one of the most obese cities in the country until the Mayor, Mick Cornett decided to change himself and his cities attitude and behavior. Cornett brings up the fact that everyone knew there was a health problem but no one talked about because everyone ignored it. A local political leader can bring the whole community on board and be a catalyst for getting exercise built into the schools and entire community. (Centre for Public Impact. May 15th, 2015. How Oklahoma City went on a diet.  

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Dr. Stephen Almada 

Health Psychologist

[email protected]