After soccer practice this weekend, my three-and-a-half year old son and his buddies hit the playground for a good hour of running and climbing. A gallon of water and a hamburger later, my husband and I were ready to call it a day, but he had a different idea — How about we go to the park and use the climbing wall?
Most little kids have boundless physical energy (when it comes to activities they like, at least) and when they’re young, a healthy dose of activity will come in the course of a normal day without much thought. Still, educators and public health officials have guidelines to help parents make sure their little ones are getting the exercise they need for healthy development.
Beyond physical health
We all know that exercise is important for muscle strength, lean body composition, setting kids on a lifelong trajectory of good cardiovascular health, and lowering the risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.
But when your kid is huffing and puffing, it’s not just a benefit to her body. Physical activity has been shown to improve executive function (the ability to focus on and retain important information and filter distractions), perhaps through an increase in available blood or energy to the frontal cortex and the memory-forming hippocampus. In other words, exercise also helps your child think.
And we have reason to believe that staying active is important to your child’s mood, too. On an immediate level you can see this difference in spirit – let’s say, when your child starts to hit his friends after he’s cooped up too long, or when he’s been sluggishly devouring shows on the iPad and then brightens when he gets out of the house to play tag.
How much exercise do kids need?
You’ll find plenty of benchmarks for children’s physical activity out there, and most, like those from the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, converge on the idea that male and female children and adolescents need at least one hour of exercise every day. That should be composed of activities that are:
- Aerobic (running, jumping, biking, dancing, and other pastimes that up your child’s heart rate)
- Muscle-strengthening (climbing or other actions that “overload” muscles beyond their normal work)
- Bone-strengthening (jumping, running, hopscotch, and other actions that put force on the bones)
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education says that toddlers need 30 minutes of structured and 60 minutes of unstructured activity every day, and that they should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time except to sleep. For preschoolers, the recommendation is 60 minutes of structured and 60 minutes to several hours of unstructured activity, with the same parameter of being sedentary for no more than an hour. Kids ages five to 12 should get at least an hour of activity all or most days of the week.
Running out of ideas to keep your kid moving? Try these tips for staying active:
Go for the big schoolyard
If your child is in daycare or preschool (especially if it’s a full day program), make sure there is plenty of indoor and outdoor space for toddling and running, and also a safe climbing structure. By the age of three, most kids need a nice wide-open yard to play tag, bike, or just run in good old-fashioned circles.
Keep the stroller for long walks
While the stroller makes life easier for parents, try to limit it to longer hikes. Help your toddler or preschooler get in the habit of walking next to you instead. Make it an “adventure walk,” in which you pick up interesting treasures along the way or pretend you’re exploring the neighborhood, if she needs encouragement.
The friend factor
A recent study gave us reason to think that social dynamics can have an impact on a child’s level of activity; feeling ostracized or excluded may make our little ones more likely to be sedentary. Check out what’s happening on the playground with your child’s friends and make sure she feels comfortable and motivated to get in the game.
Television is the ultimate anti-exercise, so see if you can limit screen time by having parameters around it, such as only on the weekends or only one show per day.
Sleep and eat well
Your little one needs energy to play, so check that she’s sleeping well (13-15 hours a day for a one-year-old; 12-14 hours a day for a two-year-old; and at least 11-12 hours for a preschooler) and getting plenty of healthy foods and lots of water.