Four ways exercise can benefit gender-diverse kids

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There’s no doubt that exercise is important for good health: It has many benefits for kids and teens, from helping build strong bones to boosting mood. Team sports in particular have been linked with lower rates of loneliness and social anxiety.

As a former college athlete and personal trainer himself, Ellis Barrera, a research assistant in Boston Children’s Gender Multispecialty Service (GeMS), knows just how much physical activity can benefit both body and mind. According to a paper recently published in JAMA Pediatrics by Barrera and endocrinologists Dr. Jessica Kremen and Dr. Kate Millington, exercise may be especially crucial for gender-diverse kids.

“We know that just moving your body is a positive habit to start early on,” says Barrera. Here, the team shares four reasons why exercise is key.

1. Exercise is protective against the impact of minority stress.

Stigmatized minority groups, including transgender people, are more likely to experience chronically high levels of stress, a phenomenon known as minority stress. Research suggests that minority stress is associated with a number of mental health concerns, including a higher risk of suicide and substance abuse. The good news? Regular physical activity is an excellent way to help manage stress and counteract its negative effects.

2. Exercise helps protect the heart.

Studies show that transgender youth may be at higher risk for cardiovascular problems than their peers, and trans adults are more likely that their peers to experience heart attack and stroke. The chronic stress of discrimination appears to contribute significantly to these risks. Exercising regularly protects all kids’ hearts, and trans kids are no exception.

3. Exercise builds strong bones.

Childhood and adolescence are important times for bone building. Transgender kids and adults appear to have lower bone mineral density than their peers even before starting gender-affirming medical therapies. Being active can help build and maintain strong bones.

4. Exercise can help ease gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria describes a discrepancy between the sex someone was assigned at birth and their gender identity. This can create significant distress and discomfort. Physical movement can give trans kids and teens the opportunity to feel positive about their bodies. “Exercise can help your body feel like home,” explains Barrera.

Supporting gender-diverse kids and teens

Despite the many benefits of physical activity, transgender youth have lower rates of exercise than their cisgender peers. There may be several reasons for that, including discomfort around changing in locker rooms or wearing revealing uniforms, says Kremen. What’s more, some states have enacted legislation that aims to ban transgender youth from participating on sports teams that align with their gender.

“All of these factors create a space where trans kids have constant attention drawn to them for reasons that have nothing to do with their desire to participate in sports,” explains Barrera. “These kids just want to play like anyone else.”

So what can families, clinicians, and others do to make it easier for gender-diverse kids to stay active? Kremen and Barrera have several suggestions.

Be an advocate. “Make sure your child knows that they can play sports on the team that aligns with their gender,” says Kremen. “Work with their school, coach, and others to help make that happen.” When your child feels supported, they’re likely to feel more comfortable advocating for themselves, too. In fact, inclusionary policies not only benefit transgender student athletes, but also cisgender athletes.

Draw on resources. Community is key in helping kids and teens feel supported, on the playing field and off. Check out organizations such as Athlete Ally and GLSEN to learn more. Dr. Kremen also recommends that families watch the documentary “Changing the Game,” which is about transgender inclusion in sports.

Help them find what they love. Team sports aren’t for everyone. If your child prefers solo sports — or just doesn’t consider themselves ‘athletic’ — there are still plenty of ways for them to be active. They might enjoy non-gendered or coed sports like Ultimate Frisbee, for example. Check to see if your local LGBTQ+ groups offer classes or other non-competitive activities to try: “Whatever brings them joy,” says Barrera.

Learn more about Gender Services at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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