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Beyond Endorphins: The Mental Health Benefits of Youth Sports

By Cristiane Carraffa Chiacchio, USA Football, 08/19/19, 10:15PM CDT

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When children head out to the field for organized sports, they are not just promoting physical fitness and “letting off steam.” They are laying the groundwork for lifelong fitness habits, amassing experiences that can alleviate and protect against anxiety and depression and keep both bodies and minds healthier.

The role of physical activity in combatting depression and anxiety is well documented, particularly when it comes to human physiology. Going out for a run can increase levels of serotonin, which regulates mental health. Physical activity releases natural-uplifting endorphins, reduces the stress hormone (cortisol), and stimulates norepinephrine, which improves mood. When children and teens get their exercise through organized sports, the benefits go beyond these chemical reactions. Here are three sometimes overlooked facets of youth sports programs that can go a long way in reducing anxiety and depression and promoting positive mental health.  

They create a sense of community

Organized youth sports programs are not just about running sprints or shooting hoops. Properly structured programs can provide a safe, wholesome and nurturing environment for children and teens, instilling a sense of community where they feel supported and are engaged with adults who care about their mental and physical wellbeing.  Youth sports teams should create community-building rituals, which can be game-changing for young people struggling with stress at school or at home. Something as simple as circling up for a team “checks in” before a game or practice eases the transition from the school day and provides a way to leave behind the day’s stressor and shift to a new and positive focus.