A parent shared with me that her youngest recently told her in no uncertain terms, “I can’t go outside! I’ve got too much on my mind!”
“I think he is planning on spending the rest of the pandemic in his room with his tablet thinking through the collapse of the world,” she lamented. “No surprise that this coping strategy isn’t working so well for our family.”
“I think there is a piece of all of us that wants to join him” I replied.
The pandemic induced lockdowns have turned so many routines upside down and caused anxiety and exhaustion. As a result, many kids are struggling to maintain motivation to do much of anything, including moving their bodies or going outside.
As we approach the one year anniversary of the pandemic, we need to dig even deeper for coping strategies. During the past year we’ve written many posts about how to talk to children about stress and feelings. It’s also important to remember that stress lives in our bodies before it lives in our brains.
Spending a lot of time in front of screens can be a uniquely disembodied experience if we aren’t careful. Far from being just “brains on sticks,” our bodies and brains are built to move.
Our Bodies and Brains Are Connected
Our bodies evolved to walk, climb, run, jump, and swim. Strategizing, planning and thinking ahead also come naturally. Our ancestors’ survival depended on both our muscles and our brains. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that our bodies and minds are connected. It turns out that in addition to building muscle, moving our bodies helps us think more clearly and feel better.
Move to Think Better
When we move our bodies, two areas of the brain benefit: the prefrontal cortex (the seat of executive functioning) and hippocampus (the seat of memory and learning). This means that after exercise we are more likely to be able to think creatively, manage our big feelings, and consider other perspectives.
Exercise doesn’t just sharpen our thinking and memory, it benefits the billions of neurons firing in our brains. The reason is that rigorous exercise sparks the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Some scientists have called BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” This doesn’t just strengthen existing brain connections, it increases new ones as well.
That’s why taking “brain breaks” during distance learning is a bit of an oxymoron. Exercise and movement activate the brain and help kids feel more alert, focused and better able to engage in learning.
Move to Feel Better
The benefits of exercise aren’t just limited to thinking better; it helps kids feel better. As your child moves, three important chemicals are increasing in their brains: dopamine, serotonin, and noreprinephrin.
- Dopamine helps your child feel good.
- Serotonin stabilizes their mood.
- Norepinephrine boosts their energy.
This explains why we often feel better after a soccer game, a walk, or a dance party. It isn’t just that we took a break; it’s that our brains got booster shots of these feel good chemicals.
Get moving tips:
With all of the swiping, clicking, and typing – it’s easy to forget that we have bodies at all. Combining movement with mindfulness practices is especially useful to help kids manage stress and manage their emotions. Check out the resources from our friends at Move Mindfully for simple techniques to integrate mindful movement throughout the day – at home or at school.
Any movement is helpful movement.
Don’t let the ideal get in the way of the real. Even short bursts of activity, we are helping sharpen our focus and regulate our mood. Consider twenty jumping jacks before lunch, run fast to grab school supplies from across the room, or encourage a short free Cosmic Kids yoga video or Go Noodle after breakfast. If you have stairs, walk up and down them whenever you can. Set timers to remind everyone to stand up and move around.
Pick up the pace now and then.
Research shows that squeezing in a more rigorous 20-30 minute session helps deliver BDNF to the brain. This doesn’t have to mean a formal workout. Kids can pick up the pace and get a bit out of breath dancing, playing tag, kicking the soccer ball, making an obstacle course, running up a sledding hill over and over again or re-playing that asynchronous P.E. class for the whole family.
For young children, exercise comes in the form of gross motor and free play. Find ways to help children run, roll, tumble, build, seek, climb, and spin. For older kids, play is still important! Plus it can be a meaningful magnet to draw some kids towards movement. For example, some elementary age kids might resist walking around the block but might be eager to kick the soccer ball around the block.
Too often, when our schedules get tight, the first things to fall off the list are the things we need most. Getting outside provides it’s own cognitive and emotional benefits. Plus we are more likely to have the space and energy to play and move with fresh air and more space.
Plan for resistance.
If your child or teen is resistant, try:
- Make it fun. From splashing in puddles with little kids to racing older ones, we are all more likely to get moving when we are having fun.
- Set a micro-goal. This might sound like “Every day we are going to put on our boots, hats, and jackets and walk to the end of the block and back! Let’s see who can get their first.” Starting with a more achievable mini-goal can kickstart a new habit. After a week, extend the adventure.
- When…. then… This might sound like “When you’ve gotten outside today then the rest of the evening is yours to do what you choose.”
- Give choices. This might sound like “We agreed to move our bodies today outside. Do you want to bring the soccer ball or just walk?”
- Follow interests. These might include sports, safely seeing friends or family, new adventures, or favorite games.