PHYSICAL ACTIVITY IN CHILDREN AND TEENS
Physical activity has numerous benefits for people of all ages. In children, exercise has physical, emotional, psychological, and cognitive effects. They are able to use excess calories from food intake, increase bone strength and muscle mass, build up on physical endurance and coordination, improve flexibility, as well as decrease the risk of developing diabetes, obesity, and acquired heart disease. Regular physical activity increases a child’s mental focus or concentration and allows them to continuously improve on strategy, teamwork, and sportsmanship. Children can use exercise as a healthy way to boost their self-esteem, destress, and overall improve their emotional state of well-being. In adolescents, dance and sports in particular can reduce the risk of exposure to risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol and tobacco smoking. Studies also show that exercise can help reduce depression and anxiety among children.
Within the last few decades, physical activity in children has been declining. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), only 24% of children between 6-17 years old are engaged in at least one hour of physical activity. Because of the emergence of virtual sources of entertainment and lack of physical interaction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming increasingly more important to maintain regular physical activity in children and adolescents.
What is considered physical activity?
Children already engage in multiple forms of physical activity, the most common of which is playing games. Other forms are walking, running, jumping, crawling, dancing, climbing, and biking. Specifically, there are three types of physical activities that children could benefit from: aerobic activities, muscle-strengthening activities, and bone-strengthening activities.
Aerobic exercise focuses on strengthening the heart and the cardiovascular system, but also improving the lungs, bones, and muscles. You will notice that during this type of exercise, both breathing and heart rate become much faster. In time, this also improves children’s endurance with regular exercise. Examples include walking, running, hiking, jumping, biking, dancing, and sports that raise your child’s heart rate, like skateboarding, martial arts, basketball, soccer, swimming, and badminton.
Based on the name, this type of activity focuses on muscle strength and resistance, specifically on major muscle groups of the body. Typically, the muscle groups of the back, arms, legs, and hips are targeted. Natural activities, like tug-o-war, rope or tree climbing and swinging on playground bars are forms of muscle-strengthening exercises. Other examples are push-ups, sit-ups, and resistance band exercises.
The last type focuses on strengthening the bones and increasing bone mass. This is also known as weight-bearing activities. Common ways children engage with this type of exercise are running, jumping rope, hopping, and skipping. Sports with bone-strengthening activities include gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, and tennis.
Recommended levels of physical activity by age
In general, children should exercise at least one hour per day, three times a week for each of these three types of exercises. One comprehensive study concludes that in children 5-17 years old, most of daily exercises should be aerobic activities, and most should be of moderate intensity.
Children less than 3 years old
Once babies learn how to roll and crawl around, encourage them to explore around and move about as much as they want to. Parents and guardians have an active role in stimulating babies, by playing with them. A total of 30 minutes of tummy time throughout the day is already stimulating for young infants. Allow around 3 hours of playtime for infants who already know how to stand up, walk, run, and hop around. Make sure that babies and infants are supervised well during these activities.
Children aged 3-5 years old
Kids in this age group are naturally inclined towards active, outdoor, and group play. They should have a regular number of hours for exercise every day, typically 3 hours as well. Most of this will come from dancing and playing around. Focus on physical activities that they are distinctly interested in as this will sustain the momentum of regular exercise.
At this point, children are at risk of becoming inactive - digital media, such as phones, tablets and TVs can grab and hold their attention for hours. Keep them moving about by introducing appropriate games and activities that they may be interested in, such as hide and seek, catch and throw, riding bikes or scooters, playing hopscotch, and building blocks. If possible, schedule playdates with other children.
Children aged 6-17 years old
For kids under this age group, at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous activities per day are recommended, combining all three types of physical activities. Simple tasks, such as walking the dog around a park, walking to school, or doing household chores, can contribute to their daily exercise. Similar to preschool children, avoid activities with prolonged sitting or lying down.
Consider introducing them to different types of dance and sports. These may include ballet, gymnastics, swimming, basketball, volleyball, football, martial arts, and more. Teenagers may also opt to try workouts at home or at the gym, or resistance exercises, to build up their muscles and bones.
Keeping children interested in physical activity
Each child has his or her own interests, which may also change in time. Unfortunately, there’s not one specific activity or exercise that all children will enthusiastically join in. Despite this, parents must make sure that they regularly partake in physical activity.
Parents who are unsure of what activities to offer can approach a pediatrician for these concerns; they can discuss the appropriate activities for their child, especially for those who have special needs or certain medical conditions that limit their movement or endurance. They can also join parent or school communities for advice and suggestions on what activities to introduce to their kids.
As previously mentioned, it’s important that the child is interested in the activity. One way to grab their attention or make them try a new activity is for parents to also be involved. Biking together around a park, walking to school together, or playing baseball in the backyard are some ways to encourage kids to be active. Parents who are active with dance or sport can take it one notch further by influencing their children to join them.
Make physical activity a non-negotiable part of the day, if possible. Parents may set exercise as a daily goal (twice- or thrice-weekly is also acceptable) during weekdays, then allocate some time to do a specific activity together with their children during the weekends.
Physical activity is often overlooked by parents and guardians, yet it is considered one proactive way to promote health and prevent illnesses in children. Exercise offers multiple benefits by improving a child’s growth holistically - physically, emotionally, and mentally. There are different types of physical activities that children may engage in, depending on their interests and their age group. Parents play an important role in encouraging and maintaining regular physical activity for their children.
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- Physical Activity Facts (21 Apr 2020). Division of Population Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taken from: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/facts.htm
- How much physical activity do children need? (9 Mar 2022). Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taken from: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/children/index.htm
- American Academy of Pediatrics (5 Aug 2020). Making Physical Activity a Way of Life: AAP Policy Explained. AAP News Parent Plus. Taken from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/fitness/Pages/Making-Fitness-a-Way-of-Life.aspx
- American Academy of Pediatrics (16 Jul 2014). Energy Out: Daily Physical Activity Recommendations. Energy In Energy Out: Finding the Right Balance for Your Children. Taken from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/fitness/Pages/Energy-Out-Daily-Physical-Activity-Recommendations.aspx
- Janssen, I., LeBlanc, A.G. Systematic review of the health benefits of physical activity and fitness in school-aged children and youth. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 7, 40 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-7-40
- Annaccone, A. (n.d.) Exercise for kids: benefits, risks & exercise tips. Taken from: https://blog.nasm.org/fitness/kids-and-exercise
- National Health Service (NHS) (8 Oct 2019). Physical activity guidelines for children (under 5 years). Taken from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/physical-activity-guidelines-children-under-five-years/
- Physical activity for young children (25 Mar 2022). Raising Children Network. Taken from: https://raisingchildren.net.au/babies/play-learning/active-play/physical-activity-for-young-children
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