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Resources Mar 31, 2015

Play with a Purpose: The simple solution to our kids’ stress crisis

WendyLeBolt-HeaderKids are stressed these days. Anxiety, worry, clinical depression and suicide is on the rise in our teens. They are meeting the pressure cookers of their lives without the resources to manage them. So, why try to squeeze in exercise? Because done voluntarily and under no pressure to perform, it’s a stress reducer.

But wait, isn’t exercise a stress creator? How can it also be a stress reducer?

Yes, exercise revs up the body. It activates the fight or flight response which is your body’s natural way of dealing with challenge. It’s a survival skill, if you will.


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Through a lightning-fast neural activation which ignites a complex cascade of hormones, the body turns on or turns up your heart rate, breathing, and energy availability while shifting blood flow away from your gut in order to supply your fight or flight muscles. It even dilates the pupils of your eyes so you get a better look at what’s about to accost you.

This is the same response the body has in preparation for a contest or competition. It’s a ‘readying.’ And in a perfect world, you take that readiness to the game or competition and use those muscles and that heart and lungs to good advantage. All systems are go. The chemistry of the body rolls and the energy needed is supplied and used and its waste products are sent for disposal.



That is, if you fight or flee. Either one, courageous or coward, the body accepts either choice. It’s only a problem if you’re forced to just stand there and take it, and all that readiness revs in neutral.

The nerves are activated, the hormones are circulating, the energy is available and all of it chomping at the bit. It builds up with no outlet. When the “go” switch is perpetually activated, this becomes a chronic condition; that is the illness we are seeing today.

The solution is simple: move. Move with intensity, purpose and freedom. Run and jump and skip and play and blow off that steam that, quite literally, is threatening to explode.

But today, kids (and adults) are not finding that outlet for their stress.

  • We are taking away recess so they have more “instructional” time and reducing the number of days they have physical education for the same reason.
  • We are putting already overwhelmed classroom teachers in charge of in-class movement sessions they are untrained to offer in the extra time they don’t have to spare.
  • So, we are sending kids in droves to after-school programs where they’ll “get some exercise” because…
  • We are working more ourselves and don’t have time to just go out and play…
  • Which we feel guilty about, so we volunteer to coach our kids sports team
  • Where we find the very stressors we thought we had left behind: outcome-driven thinking, performance evaluations and lots and lots of critics.

Somehow, in youth athletics today, our best intentions to give kids equal playing time and celebrate every kid for doing his or her best sound laughable. It’s no wonder 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by the age of 13. And many, perhaps most, of the ones who stick it out are not happy, either.

+READ: LeBolt: The real secret to success … quitting?


What began as play has become “working out” or “conditioning” for competition, and if they want to keep playing that is just what the training field looks like. Take it or leave it. Stress to quit vs. stress to stay means our kids are in a vice that keeps on tightening.

If we really want to help our kids get back to healthy — physically, mentally and emotionally — our game plan has to

Every kid needs a place to play.

Every kid needs a physical activity that will challenge them to grow and the freedom to explore what their body can do.

Every kid should have the chance to reach as far as their ability allows AND the choice just to play with their friends if they want to.

Every kid should have the opportunity to get the healthy activity their bodies and minds need and their hearts cannot develop without.

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Exercise may activate the stress system, but it’s a positive stress that stimulates the body to grow and develop as long as we keep it healthy. That’s life, folks. We don’t dare send our kids out in it without being properly prepared. When fight or flight are unacceptable options, why not choose fitness and fun?

“Play with a purpose” should be every body’s game plan. We don’t even need to tell the kids it’s good for them.

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