When most adults think about exercise, they imagine working out in the gym on a treadmill or lifting weights.
But for kids, exercise means playing and being physically active. Kids exercise when they have gym class at school, soccer practice, or dance class. They're also exercising when they're at recess, riding bikes, or playing tag.
The Many Benefits of Exercise
Everyone can benefit from regular exercise. Kids who are active will:
- have stronger muscles and bones
- have a leaner body because exercise helps control body fat
- be less likely to become overweight
- decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- possibly lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels
- have a better outlook on life
Besides enjoying the health benefits of regular exercise, kids who are physically fit sleep better and are better able to handle physical and emotional challenges — from running to catch a bus to studying for a test.
The Three Elements of Fitness
If you've ever watched kids on a playground, you've seen the three elements of fitness in action when they:
- run away from the kid who's "it" (endurance)
- cross the monkey bars (strength)
- bend down to tie their shoes (flexibility)
Parents should encourage their kids to do a variety of activities so that they can work on all three elements.
Endurance is developed when kids regularly engage in aerobic activity. During aerobic exercise, the heart beats faster and a person breathes harder. When done regularly and for continuous periods of time, aerobic activity strengthens the heart and improves the body's ability to deliver oxygen to all its cells.
Aerobic exercise can be fun for both adults and kids. Examples of aerobic activities include:
- inline skating
Improving strength doesn't have to mean lifting weights. Although some kids benefit from weightlifting, it should be done under the supervision of an experienced adult who works with them.
But most kids don't need a formal weight-training program to be strong. Push-ups, stomach crunches, pull-ups, and other exercises help tone and strengthen muscles. Kids also incorporate strength activities in their play when they climb, do a handstand, or wrestle.
Stretching exercises help improve flexibility, allowing muscles and joints to bend and move easily through their full range of motion. Kids look for opportunities every day to stretch when they try to get a toy just out of reach, practice a split, or do a cartwheel.
The Sedentary Problem
The percentage of overweight and obese kids and teens has more than doubled over the past 30 years. Although many factors contribute to this epidemic, children are becoming more sedentary. In other words, they're sitting around a lot more than they used to.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average child is watching about 3 hours of television a day. And the average kid spends 51/2 hours on all screen media combined (TV, videos and DVDs, computer time outside of schoolwork, and video games).
One of the best ways to get kids to be more active is to limit the amount of time spent in sedentary activities, especially watching TV or playing video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 2 years watch no TV at all and that screen time should be limited to no more than 1-2 hours of quality programming a day for kids 2 years and older.
How Much Exercise Is Enough?
Parents need to ensure that their kids get enough exercise. So, how much is enough? All kids 2 years and older should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise on most, preferably all, days of the week.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) offers expanded activity guidelines for infants, toddlers and preschoolers:
Minimum Daily Activity
No specific requirements
Physical activity should encourage motor development
30 minutes planned physical activity AND 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)
60 minutes planned physical activity AND 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)
1 hour or more
Break up into bouts of 15 minutes or more
Infants and young children should not be inactive for prolonged periods of time — no more than 1 hour unless they're sleeping. And school-age children should not be inactive for periods longer than 2 hours.
Raising a Fit Kid
Combining regular physical activity with a healthy diet is the key to a healthy lifestyle.
Here are some tips for raising fit kids:
- Help your child participate in a variety of activities that are age-appropriate.
- Establish a regular schedule for physical activity.
- Incorporate activity into daily routines, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Embrace a healthier lifestyle yourself, so you'll be a positive role model for your family.
- Keep it fun, so you can count on your child to come back for more.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2009
Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA)
YMCAs also offer camps, computer classes, and community service opportunities in addition to fitness classes.
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.
The U.S. government's website about the MyPyramid Plan Food Guidance System features information on the food pyramid and its 12 models geared to different people, online tools, and dietary guidelines.
American Council on Exercise (ACE)
ACE promotes active, healthy lifestyles by setting certification and education standards for fitness instructors and through ongoing public education about the importance of exercise.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
The USDA works to enhance the quality of life for people by supporting the production of agriculture.
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