More Physical Activity Translates to Better Mental Health

A new report released today by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play and Hurst Community initiatives identified the immense value of physical activity to the mental health of Colorado children in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. However, not enough youth enjoy the benefits of regularly moving their bodies.

“State of Play Colorado: Aspen to Parachute” is a one-year analysis of youth sports, outdoor recreation and other forms of physical activity within an 80-mile corridor from Aspen to Parachute, Colorado.

Read the full report and executive summary.

“State of Play Colorado: Aspen to Parachute” identified 40 findings and made recommendations based on the unique characteristics of the region. The report was produced through youth surveys, interviews with community members, and publicly available information. More than 1,000 children across the region were surveyed about their experiences with sports and physical activity, including why they do or don’t play sports, relationships with coaches, and sports/activities they play and want to try.

Only 22% of surveyed children in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys receive 60 minutes of physical activity daily (slightly below the national average of 24%). Girls are two times less likely to be physically active than boys, and Latino/a children (15%) engage in physical activity less than White youth (27%).

The survey shows significant mental health benefits associated with physical activity. For example, active youth (meaning physical activity every day) are three times less likely to feel depressed than non-active youth (zero days with physical activity each week). Active youth also report feeling happier and more motivated than non-active youth.

“State of Play Colorado: Aspen to Parachute” was guided by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program with local assistance from the Aspen Institute Hurst Community Initiative and an advisory group of local leaders whose work revolves around play, sports, recreation, education and healthy communities.

“This work illuminates pervasive inequities as well as viable opportunities unique to the region,” said Evan Zislis, director of the Hurst Community Initiative. “Project Play took a comprehensive approach to the area’s state of play that has helped local community partners better understand strategic next steps, with a focus on supporting families facing the greatest obstacles to equitable participation.”

The report’s recommendations offer promising opportunities that include:

  • Use the power of soccer to grow educational opportunities and belonging for Latino/a youth. Four in 10 surveyed Latino/a children said they regularly play soccer – far more than any other sport. More affordable soccer opportunities in the region could be offered at younger ages, soccer could help chart academic pathways to college, and organized soccer could return to Colorado Mountain College (the regional higher-education system with 11 campuses).
  • Create a scholarship portal for underserved children to access sports and recreation more affordably. Although some organizations generously provide scholarships for children to play, many parents struggle to navigate a confusing flood of scholarship applications.
  • Provide coaching education on positive youth development. Coaches must understand how to make youth sports and recreation safe places physically and emotionally for children while using these activities as tools for developing children’s social, emotional and cognitive skills.

“This report underscores the critical connection between physical activity and mental well-being in young people,” said Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield. “At the Aspen Institute, we believe all youth deserve the opportunity to experience the benefits of play, sports, and the outdoors, regardless of their background. ‘State of Play Colorado: Aspen to Parachute’ provides a roadmap to ensure every child can reach their full potential, on and off the field.”

“State of Play Colorado: Aspen to Parachute” is the 13th State of Play community report of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative. Future State of Play reports will be released in Kansas City, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Washington D.C. Previous reports have helped mobilize leaders across sectors to set shared agendas, shape government policies, develop innovative partnerships, and unlock tens of millions of dollars in grantmaking.

The Aspen Institute will soon launch Project Play Colorado, a coalition of state-level entities and community sport providers with the shared goal of moving the state’s sports participation rate from 54% to 63%. The coalition will meet on a regular basis to track better data, share knowledge and best practices, influence state and local policy, and provide thought leadership.