Physical Activity is Critical for Sensory Regulation
You’ve heard it again and again: exercise benefits bodies.
But did you know that it benefits the human brain, too? And, especially, growing, learning brains?
Kids – their bodies and their brains – need lots of gross motor movement for sensory regulation. Let’s talk about why and how.
Estimates suggest that 5% to 16.5% of the population show symptoms related to sensory processing differences. Rates are increased in specific groups, including those with diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (1)
But wait – even if your child does not have a sensory processing disorder (SPD), you’ve come to the right place. Because all children have sensory systems. And all children benefit from movement to regulate them.
I’m here today to double down on the importance of physical activity for your child’s growing brain. Sensory toys and fidgets are excellent tools for desktop and focused-learning activities. They are not, however, a replacement for exercise.
To get kids the stimulation and input they crave for sensory regulation, they need to move and move big: running, jumping, dancing, doing heavy work, and even practicing yoga. I’m going to share with you the incredible brain-boosting benefits of physical activity and some fun and easy ways to incorporate it into your busy life.
Benefits of Physical Activity for Sensory Regulation
When occupational therapists (OTs) talk about movement with regard to sensory regulation, we’re primarily zeroing in on two types of sensory input: proprioceptive input and vestibular input.
Proprioceptive input is given to our joints and muscles. It helps to calm and organize the body. Vestibular input is related to balance and space and is processed through inner ear mechanisms. Both help our brains and bodies with awareness. (2)
Exercise, and especially exercise targeting both of these types of input, has a variety of positive effects on sensory regulation. And regulated brains and bodies are more prepared to learn!
Specifically, studies show that:
- Children with behavior difficulties have significantly reduced disruptive behaviors after they exercise. (3)
- Students who exercise regularly show improved performance on tests of cognition (thinking skills) post-exercise. (4)
- Low-performing students show significant improvements in working memory (a type of short-term memory) after high-intensity physical activity. (5)
- Exercises involving bilateral coordination (like jumping jacks or hopscotch) lead to increased attention and concentration in adolescents. (6)
- Students who participate in vigorous physical activity get significantly higher grades than those who don’t. (7)
Easy, Engaging Ways to Get Kids Moving
The data is in: physical activity is great for kids’ sensory regulation. But how do you get your child off the couch and moving?
Jump, but make it fun.
Jump ropes and trampolines are exciting ways to get kids jumping. But, if you don’t have either, there are plenty of other fun options! Hopscotch is an age-old game that combines cardiovascular exercise with coordination practice and sensory input. Draw a grid of hopscotch squares on your driveway using sidewalk chalk. Then, model the task for your child! Up the challenge by extending the grid of squares. Another jumping activity for the competitive little ones: see how many two-footed jumps or jumping jacks you each can do before tiring out. Last, try a carefully-supervised “crash” session. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: make a DIY crash pad (with a duvet full of pillows and cushions). It’ll provide huge value in the way of proprioceptive input.
Run to a regulated body.
Encourage kids to run to get input to their joints and muscles, but get creative with it! (After all, would you be excited to do a lap around the yard?) If your child has siblings, encourage races. No siblings? Time him or her with your stopwatch and set goals! For kids less motivated by a competitive spirit, try a fun, fast-paced scavenger hunt. Hide exciting, small items around the house or yard, and give your child five minutes to find as many as they can.
Dance the sillies out!
Dancing is a fun way for children to get moving. Bonus: music provides additional input in auditory form! Turn on your child’s favorite songs and dance around the living room! Encourage and model big body movements. Focus on dance moves that give loads of input to the sensory systems. These include shaking, wiggling, spinning, stomping, doing the can-can, squatting, and more. A note of caution: some kids are extremely sensitive to movements like spinning. To prevent overstimulation, be careful to rotate frequently between dance moves, and limit the number of spinning revolutions at a time.
Heavy work makes the brain work.
Activities that involve pushing or pulling fall into a category occupational therapists call “heavy work.” At home, this might look like carrying a basket of laundry through the house or helping to move large pieces of furniture (or even just pushing against them). For more exciting ways to get similar input, try playing a tug-of-war game with a long rope. Or, suggest that your child give their little sibling a “horseback” ride while crawling on the floor. Pulling a wagon, especially with a passenger, is another popular heavy work activity.
Yoga for the young ones.
Think yoga is just for adults? Think again! Yoga movements like bending (with head towards the ground), stretching, and balancing give the brain lots of good sensory input. Bonus: kids get practice with motor planning while attempting the different poses. Youtube is a great resource for yoga videos for kids. Try this video for young and/or preverbal children and this one for those with more advanced language skills. Or be your child’s own yoga model. You don’t even need a yoga mat! Although, it helps children contain their bodies and develop an awareness of space. Plus, they think it’s fun.
Sensory Regulation and Movement: The Bottom Line
Get. Kids. Moving!
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommend 60 minutes or more of high-intensity physical activity for school-aged kids every day. (8) Make those minutes feel like play!
And for the moments in which gross motor play is not appropriate (*looking at you, distance learning*), fidget tools for little motor movements, like the ones you’ll find in Sensory TheraPLAY’s boxes, will do the trick.
You and your child will reap the benefits in the form of a well-regulated sensory system.