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The “Hidden” Benefits of Physical Activity in Youth

Guest Post by Dave Johnson, MS

In 2010, a study published in the International Journal of Obesity sent shockwaves through the public health community. According to the authors of the study, researchers found that 20% of people born between 1966 and 1985 were obese in their 20s, an obesity prevalence milestone not reached by their parents until their 30s or by their grandparents until their 40s or 50s[1].

That means more Americans are getting heavier earlier in their lives and carrying the extra pounds for longer periods of time, which suggests that the impact for chronic disease and life expectancy may be worse than previously thought. In short, this generation may be the first not to outlive their parents!


It’s not news that we have a growing problem in the United States but this particular news came as a shock to many. Based on recent data things haven’t really improved, either:

  • The percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.
  • Data from 2015-2016 show that nearly 1 in 5 school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity.
  • Children with obesity are at higher risk of having other chronic health conditions and diseases that influence physical health. These include asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, and risk factors for heart disease.
  • Children with obesity are bullied and teased more than their normal weight peers and are more likely to suffer from social isolation, depression, and lower self-esteem.
  • In the long term, a child with obesity is more likely to have obesity as an adult. An adult with obesity has a higher risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and many types of cancer.[2]


What’s odd about all this is that people are well aware of most of the benefits that come with regular physical activity (improved muscular strength and endurance, improved heart and lung function, improved blood lipid profile, etc.), yet inactivity remains at an all time high. Perhaps, then, our message should shift to some of the “hidden” benefits of physical activity in youth.


One area of key interest for parents relates to academic performance. In an era where standardized testing is “normal” and academic rigors have never been higher, parents should be made aware of the cognitive benefits of physical activity. A multitude of studies has shown a positive correlation between physical activity and cognitive skill development (perceptual skills, intelligence quotient, achievement, verbal tests, mathematics tests, developmental level/ academic readiness, etc.). Further, researchers in California consistently found that students with higher levels of fitness scored higher on the SAT-9 (their standardized tests). There was a positive linear relationship between the number of fitness standards achieved and standardized test scores[3]. The evidence is clear: increased physical activity equals increased academic performance!


Another area of interest for most parents revolves around mental health, particularly conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). CDC data estimates that, as of 2016, Approximately 9.4% of children 2-17 years of age (6.1 million) had ever been diagnosed with ADHD[4]. A study from Journal of Abnormal Child Psychologyshowed that offering daily before-school, aerobic activities to younger at-risk children could help in reducing the symptoms of ADHD in the classroom and at home[5]. Symptoms of ADHD typically include inattentiveness, moodiness and difficulty getting along with others. This is yet another positive outcome associated with regular physical activity.


One final “hidden” benefit of physical activity lies in a child’s social health. In a society where social media dominates our landscape and digital interaction occurs far more often than physical interaction, physical activity provides an outlet for children and adolescents to collaborate with their peers to develop important interpersonal skills such as cooperation, teamwork, empathy, and leadership. These skills are imperative for helping young people build self confidence and self efficacy, two traits that have a direct correlation with personal and professional success.


The youth fitness demographic remains largely untapped. Most parents who actively seek fitness assistance are interested solely in specialized athletic training, but they only represent a fraction of the parents with children. Most parents are well aware of the traditional benefits of physical activity, but these “hidden” benefits carry significant weight and can be used to successfully market to a significant demographic. If you’re interested in learning more about this exciting topic, including specific training techniques for children and adolescents, check out our Youth Foundations courses!


[1]Warner, J. (2010, April 09). Baby Boomers May Outlive Their Kids. Retrieved from

[2]Obesity Facts | Healthy Schools | CDC. (2018). Retrieved from

[3]Sattelmair, J., & Ratey, J. J. (2009). Physically Active Play and Cognition: An Academic Matter? American Journal of Play,1(3). Retrieved from

[4]Data and Statistics About ADHD | CDC. (2018). Retrieved from

[5]Michigan State University. (2014). Exercise before school may reduce ADHD symptoms in kids. Retrieved from

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