A Primer for Parents

How Much Exercise Does Your Child Need?

The benefit of exercise for people of all ages is well-documented, and children are no exception. Being physically active improves a child’s aerobic fitness, muscular strength and endurance, bone health and weight status, and increases their cognitive function. Exercise will also increase your child’s self-confidence and reduce overall stress levels. The sooner your children learn that literally any form of activity is better than no activity at all, the sooner they’ll be on the path to better health and well-being. Check out this quick primer on exercise types and volume to ensure your kids are on the move.

Ages 3 to 5

Guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for very young children are not specific beyond the suggestion to “be physically active throughout the day” for optimal growth and development. But as screen time for children increases, parents have to try harder to ensure their kids are getting enough movement. Try “active play” activities like throwing and catching a soft ball, learning the “head, shoulders, knees and toes” song, keeping a balloon aloft in the living room, digging for treasure in the sandbox, running through a sprinkler, or playing limbo. You’ll find that the less time your child spends sitting in front of the television or tablet during the day, the less resistant he or she will be at naptime and bedtime.

Ages 6 to 17

The CDC recommends children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day. This should include aerobic activities that elevate the heart rate, like walking, running, riding a bike, or attending soccer practice, and muscle and bone-strengthening activities like climbing, jumping or doing bodyweight calisthenics like pushups or squats.

When children are introduced to physical activity in the early part of this age range, it lays the groundwork for a healthy lifestyle. If you are exercising at home, encourage your child to do jumping jacks or skip rope while you work out, or teach them simple yoga poses like downward facing dog and tree pose. Simply keeping a variety of inexpensive fitness equipment around the house, such as hula hoops, jump ropes, frisbees and balls, can inspire them to be more active. Or, plug “workouts for kids” into YouTube and tee up a video that will take your child through 15 minutes or so of jogging in place, karate kicks, toe touches and energetic dance moves to introduce them to periods of sustained activity. You’ll find that if your 8-year-old is active, your 4-year-old will want to participate too, and then fitness becomes a family affair.

What is the difference between moderate and vigorous activity?

On a scale of 0 to 10, where sitting on the couch is a 0 and sprinting as fast as you can is a 10, moderate activity is a 5 or 6. Your child’s heart rate will be elevated, they may start to sweat, and while they can still carry on a conversation, shouting or singing will be difficult. Vigorous activity registers a 7 or 8 on the scale. The heart rate will further elevate, breathing will be harder and they’ll only be able to say a few words at a time. In practical terms, walking to school is a moderate-intensity activity, while playing tag or hanging on the monkey bars at recess is more vigorous.

Should your adolescent child do a formal muscle-strengthening program?

If your child is an athlete, odds are his or her structured sports practices or dance classes will include some strengthening activities. However, it does a child no good to exercise with weights until they have reached puberty and have the hormone profile necessary to build muscle. That said, whether your child is participating in organized physical activities or not, bodyweight exercises done with a focus on proper form can teach your child sound movement patterns and body awareness, and can ward off the lapses in coordination that often come with growth spurts. Think exercises like wall squats, sit-ups, step-ups to a box or bench, pull-ups or inverted rows and forward and backward lunges. Start with one set of 10 repetitions of each exercise three times a week, and gradually move up to three sets of 10 as strength increases.

Managing Expectations

Children develop at different rates. Between the ages of 6 and 10, fine motor skills – the coordination of small muscle movements, like those in the hands and fingers – are not yet developed. Even gross motor skills, which are coordinated by larger muscle groups that govern full-body movements like running and jumping, are still developing. Thus, one 6-year-old may be able to dribble a basketball with ease, while another will have a difficult time stringing two bounces together. One will run down a woodsy trail and navigate rocks and roots with no problem, while another will have to move more slowly and choose their footing. And that’s fine. Whether watching your child play in the driveway or on a field in an organized practice, understand he or she is still developing and needs time to grow into his or her body. What matters at the beginning is that the child has fun, enjoys the physical activity and wants to do it again.

In the 11 to 14-year-old range, those fine and gross motor skills start to work better, but each child hits puberty at a different time and some will grow sooner and more quickly than others. By the ages of 15 to 18, some children will have fully adult forms and be able to excel in their sports, while others will still be growing. Patience is key, as is being supportive of your child’s chosen physical activity, no matter their level of expertise. If he or she goes on to be a superstar, that’s wonderful. But if not, the health benefits of being active will stay with them throughout their lives.