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
In addition to the health benefits of regular exercise, kids who are physically fit sleep better and are better able to handle the physical and emotional challenges that a typical day presents — be that running to catch a bus, bending down to tie a shoe or 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 develops 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:
- in-line skating
Improving strength doesn’t have to mean lifting weights. Although some kids benefit from lifting weights, 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 flip over the couch.
How Much Exercise Is Enough?
Parents need to ensure that their kids get enough exercise. So, how much is enough? As a general guideline, all children 2 years and older should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) offers specific recommendations for kids:
No minimum daily activity requirements. Physical activity should encourage motor development.
Minimum daily activity requirement: 1.5 hours. 30 minutes planned physical activity and 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)
Minimum daily activity requirement: 2 hours. 60 minutes planned physical activity and 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)
- School Age
Minimum daily activity requirement: 1 hour. Break up into bouts of 15 minutes or more
Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s revised Food Guide Pyramid lets parents enter a child’s age, gender, and activity level to get recommendations for total calories and healthy eating.