Both researchers and professionals have expressed the importance of physical activity for mental health, including social prescribing of exercise (1) alongside more traditional interventions such as therapy or medication. Each style of physical activity has its own merit, but what are the specific ways in which boxing can improve young people’s emotional wellbeing?
1. Regulating sleep patterns
Just like adults, many adolescents struggle with maintaining a regular sleeping pattern. Being on social media and gaming can be seen as both a cause of this difficulty, and an attempted solution, with young people who are struggling to fall asleep turning to their phones and computers to distract themselves from lying awake. As the brain uses sleep as a time for development and maturation, lack of sleep in adolescents can affect memory, concentration, and emotional processing. (2)
As physical activity boosts endorphins in the brain, these hormones work to lower stress levels and help the body to rest at night. The vigorous workouts involved in non-contact boxing are also a great way of increasing the temperature of the body. When the body’s internal temperature then drops back to normal later in the day, this can create a feeling of drowsiness to ease getting to sleep. (3)
2. Increasing concentration levels
Keeping focus, particularly in education or social situations, is a key issue that affects many young people. Physical activity is promoted in schools as it can help children and adolescents’ levels of concentration. A study on the relationship between sports therapy and attention levels found that for young people with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) both concentration and social skills were improved by regular sports therapy (4). It has also been proven that working memory and alertness can be improved in adolescents with just 15 minutes of physical activity a day. (5)
3. Helping with feelings of loneliness and isolation
Feeling like you are misunderstood or like you don’t belong is a common difficulty for adolescents. It can lead to difficulties in social behaviour, like showing aggression towards others, or avoiding friends and family.
Group activities can provide a safe space for young people to develop social skills, and feel a sense of inclusion and belonging. Building friendships and connections with other young adults and coaches can provide a support system that helps adolescents feel safe and secure in connecting with their own feelings, as well as learning empathy towards others.
Studies also show that group exercise has a more positive impact on emotional wellbeing than exercising by yourself.(6) With the recent isolation brought on by Covid-19, social activities have become even more important for young people. While many adolescents are used to mostly communicating with peers online, the lack of face-to-face contact with people their age can mean young people are missing out on important social development, and time with supportive peers. (7)
4. Increased confidence through mastery of a new skill
The group participation element of boxing can be a great tool in increasing confidence, and the physical element and mastery of a new skill can provide a boost in self-esteem. There is evidence to show that a sense of mastery in a new skill increases people’s ability to feel resilient when faced with every day challenges. Doing this in a group setting can also be beneficial, as this context also provides the additional benefit of social support.(8) Learning a new skill has been suggested by the NHS as one of the top 5 steps to improving mental wellbeing. (9)
5. Improving depression and anxiety
Studies on the physiological effects of sport participation showed that regular participation in group sport activities resulted in lower levels of anxiety and depression in adolescents. (10)
The World Health Organization recommends children and young people aged 5–17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily (11), with 82.5% of young people in England reporting that they do not meet this target (12). This figure has reduced even further since Covid-19 restrictions have increased the amount of time young people are doing sedentary activities (13). Now that gyms have re-opened, it’s a great time for young people to start or return to a group non-contact boxing programme like In Your Corner, to attend to their emotional wellbeing now and in the future.
(1) Public Health England. Social prescribing: applying all our health. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-prescribing-applying-all-our-health/social-prescribing-applying-all-our-health, updated June 2019
(2) Tarokh L, Saletin JM, and Carskadonc M. Sleep in adolescence: Physiology, cognition and mental health. 2016. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763416302664?via%3Dihub
(3) Sleep Foundation. How Exercise Impacts Sleep Quality. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-exercise-impacts-sleep-quality
(4) Kang K D, Choi J W, Kang SG, and Han DH. Sports therapy for attention, cognitions and sociality. 2011. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22068930/
(5) Hayley Guiney & Liana Machado. 2012. Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-012-0345-4
(6) Eime R, Young J, Harvey J, Charity M, and Payne W. A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. 2013. https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1479-5868-10-98
(7) How COVID-19 Could Affect Kids’ Long-Term Social Development. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/social-distancing-effects-on-social-development#How-short-term-social-distancing-could-affect-social-development
(8) Rob Whitley, Ph.D. Three Simple Ways to Enhance Mental Health Resilience https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/talking-about-men/201802/three-simple-ways-enhance-mental-health-resilience
(9) NHS. 5 steps to mental wellbeing. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing
(10) Kleppang AL, Hartz I, Thurston M, et al. The association between physical activity and symptoms of depression in different contexts – a cross-sectional study of Norwegian adolescents. BMC Public Health 2018; 18, 1368. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-6257-0
(11) World Health Organization. Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_young_people/en/
(12) Sport England. Active Lives: Children and young people survey academic year 2017/18. https://sportengland-production-files.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/active-lives-children-survey-academic-year-17-18.pdf
(13) Mi Xiang,a, Zhiruo Zhang,a, and Keisuke Kuwaharab. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on children and adolescents' lifestyle behavior larger than expected. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7190470/