Our bodies are meant to move, and children naturally seek physical activity in their play and free time. Encouraging this free play will help kids meet their exercise needs. In this post I talk about exercise for children, what their general physical activity needs are and fun ways for kids to exercise.
Note that this post provides general information and does not provide individual recommendations. Each child has unique needs, always talk to your child’s health care provider as needed before making changes to your child’s goals and activities.
Also, don’t miss out on the article I recently wrote about why exercise is important for us. That article focuses on the health benefits of exercise and provides information about exercise for adults.
Benefits of Exercise for Children
Exercising is so important in aiding the development of a strong heart and cardiorespiratory system, strong bones and of course strong muscles in children. Other benefits of exercise for children include:
- Prevention of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and osteoporosis
- Reduction in anxiety and depression
- Reduction in risk of cancer of breast, colon, endometrium and lungs
Exercise for Young Children
The main physical activity goal for children under 3 years of age is to nurture their natural desire to be active throughout the day. This is when children learn and develop skills such as crawling, walking and climbing stairs. At this stage young kiddos are also learning to run and jump, and how to throw and kick a ball. I think it is fun to see the motivation and eagerness that young children have to learn these new skills!
Exercise for Preschool Age Children
On average, children 3 to 5 years of age are active about 3 hours per day. This provides a good guideline as to how much physical activity they need. Regular active play along with some structured activities will meet these needs. This can include things like playing catch together, swimming, learning to ride a tricycle and a how to ride a scooter, jumping rope, playing a game of tag and playing at a playground.
Exercise for Children for Ages 6 to 17
Children that are 6 to 17 years old need one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise daily. Exercise for children does not have to be obtained in work out sessions like many adults do. Instead, kids’ exercise often happens in spurts throughout the day. Kids’ activities through play, participating in sports and getting outside will usually provide the outlets children need to be active. Additionally, when children are at school they will get some exercise on the days they have gym class and while they play at recess.
Likewise, while bone and muscle development are important for younger children, they do not need to pursue formal weight lifting or strength training exercises. Teens may partake in strength training if they enjoy it, and is often encouraged by their coaches when they are participating in organized sports teams. In general, physically active children are developing their muscle and bone strength through the activities they are already doing.
While it may sound like children come by physical activity easily, less than 24% of kids from ages 6 to 17 are getting an hour of physical activity each day. Let’s look at some ways we can be intentional in helping our children be active.
Tips to Help Your Child Enjoy Physical Activity
Let Your Child Choose Activities That are Fun for Them
To keep your children engaged in physical activity, it needs to be enjoyable for them. When exercise feels like a chore or another thing to check off their list of things to get done, it won’t create lifelong enjoyment for physical activity. Helping your child learn to love being physically active is one of the best things you can do for them!
Ask your child what they enjoy doing and go from there. Supporting growth in an activity they already enjoy may be the best way to encourage physical activity. Remember each child will have different preferences. For example, I have three children and one of my kids really enjoys badminton and roller skating, another kiddo is an aspiring gymnast, and my youngest child likes to play catch and also enjoys going to the playground. I try to support and encourage each of their different interests as I am able to. The goal is to help foster their love for activities that give them movement and exercise.
Be Active With Your Children
Doing activities together or as a family can help make it more enjoyable for everyone. When you are active together you are all participating and benefiting from the exercise. It also sets a great example for your kids to see you exercising. Another great benefit is the quality time you will gain.
Some ideas for family activities include family bike rides, walks and hikes. You can also swim together at the pool, play catch in the yard and kick a ball around together. Being active together can also be as simple as walking to the playground together.
Limit Screen Time
Screen time causes us to be inactive and we end up sitting around more than is good for our bodies. While children are naturally inclined to be active, screens can easily take up their time. Things like TV, videogames, tablets, cell phones and computers take the place of play time and free time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics provides the following recommendations for limiting screen time:
- No screen time for children under 18 months of age with the exception of video chatting
- Choose high quality programs/media for children 18 to 24 months and it is recommended parents/caregivers be present during screen time
- For kids ages 2 to 5 limit screens to one hour per day and choose high quality media
- No screens during meals and no screens one hour before bed time
If your family spends more time on screens than you would like, consider using this tool to help your family set a screen time/media plan. This was created by the American Academy of Pediatrics to help you and your family be intentional about your time spent on screens.
When you start to limit screens, see what activities you can replace screens with to increase the amount of exercise your children do.
Learn a New Skill
Ask your child if there is something new they would like to learn or try. It may be something fun like:
- Hip hop dance classes
- Floor hockey
Sometimes the new activity will catch on as a long term hobby, and other times it will be nice to have tried it for a season. We’ve tried a couple of activities for my kids that did not end up being a long term hobby (like ballet, basketball, soccer), and that’s okay. This is all a part of learning what activities your kids will enjoy.
Spending time outdoors lends to physical activity. Consider all of the activities that are done outdoors. Here’s a list:
- Roller skating or rollerblading
- Ice skating
- Climbing trees
- Swimming/swim lessons
- Bike riding
- Going on walks and hiking
- Going to the playground
- Playing basketball or tennis at a park nearby
Other Ways for Kids to Exercise and be Active
To give you a couple more ideas, here are some other ways to get your children exercising
- Join an organized sports teams
- Participate in park district sports
- Karate or other martial arts
- Dance classes
- Help out with chores at home (a bonus to parents!)
Physical Activity Facts https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/facts.htm#:~:text=Regular%20physical%20activity%20can%20help,developing%20health%20conditions%20such%20as%3A&text=Heart%20disease.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd Edition https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf