GET UP AND MOVE! Why? Because it’s fun and it’s good for you! Most parents understand the physical benefits of regular physical activity: improved cardiorespiratory fitness, stronger muscles and bones, improved flexibility and coordination. Regular exercise, along with a healthy, well-balanced diet, is also essential for weight maintenance. Fit kids often grow into fit adults, thus reducing overall lifetime risk of developing chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. What many parents don’t realize is that daily physical activity also has significant mental and psychological benefits. Physically active kids tend to sleep better and are more alert during the day. Studies have shown that regular exercise has a positive effect on overall school performance and a recent study suggests that it may even improve memory. It can help improve confidence and aid in relieving stress and anxiety. Many activities also provide numerous opportunities to make new friends.
Despite the known benefits of daily physical activity, the numbers are quite disheartening. Studies show that only one out of every three American children six years and older get enough exercise per day. Compounding the problem is the finding that as kids age, then tend to become even less active. Over the last 30 years, the prevalence of childhood obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2-5, has nearly tripled among youth ages 6-11, and has more than tripled among adolescents.
The Physical Activity Guidelines (PAG) put forth by the Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children (six years and older) and adolescents should participate in at least one hour of physical activity daily. Children younger than six should focus on “free active play” throughout the day, ideally about 15 minutes out of every hour, for a total of about three hours of play per day. Free active play includes activities such as running, jumping, kicking a ball, playing tag, climbing, etc.
For children ages six and older, the hour of daily activity should include some combination of aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening activities.
Aerobic exercise includes any activity that gets your heart rate up and makes you breathe faster. Intensity level varies greatly among different aerobic exercises. For example, walking briskly is considered moderate-intensity, while jogging is considered vigorous-intensity. Any activity in which you are only able to say a few words before you need to catch your breath can be considered a vigorous-intensity activity. While the majority of aerobic activity should be of moderate-intensity, PAG recommends that children reach vigorous-intensity level activity at least three days per week. Examples of aerobic activities include running, biking, hiking, swimming, dancing, playing tag, basketball, or soccer.
Engaging in muscle-strengthening exercises does not mean getting your child ready for the next bodybuilding competition, it simply means pushing or pulling against some sort of resistance, like doing a push-up (which involves pushing your body weight against gravity). Resistance can also come from weights or resistance bands. Recent research has discredited long-standing myths about strength training. Since children don’t tend to add muscle mass, it was thought that resistance training provided little benefit. However, it’s been shown that children who participate in a well-supervised and safe weight training program actually get measurably stronger. Another pervasive myth (even among fellow pediatricians) is that lifting weights (any weight, including bodyweight) at an early age leads to bone damage and stunted growth. This has proven to be false. In fact, weight training has proven to be very beneficial to overall health, some experts even argue that it’s essential, hence its inclusion in the Physical Activity Guidelines. I generally discourage formal weight training until the age of seven years. The focus of weight training should always be proper form and repetition (“reps”). I always tell kids that they should be able to move a weight comfortably 8-10 times. If a child is struggling to move a weight 2-3 times, then the risk of injury increases significantly. Examples of muscle-strengthening activities include push-ups, pull-ups, lifting weights, using resistance bands, climbing a rope, tug-of-war, or swinging from monkey bars.
Bone-strengthening activities exert some sort of force on bones, which in turn promotes bone growth and strength. These activities tend to be “explosive” and involve a higher degrees of impact with the ground. Examples include running, jumping, skipping, basketball, tennis, or gymnastics.
Playing sports (both team and individual) can be an incredibly fun way to stay active. In addition to physical health benefits, playing sports can also help teach teamwork, dedication, discipline, accountability, and how to appropriately deal with success and failure. Sports also provide an opportunity to make new friends from many different places. Most children are ready (physically and mentally) to participate in some sort of organized sport by the time they are around 6-7 years old. If you don’t think your child is ready to join an organized league, you can always enroll them in sports skills programs. These are programs that last a few days to several weeks and teach the basic skills needed to succeed in sports. But remember, being on a sports team for one season may not be enough to meet the recommended level of physical activity. I coach Little League Baseball, and I can tell you that the kids I coach engage in a “vigorous” level of exertion for about 10-15 minutes out of every hour of practice, even less during a game. Obviously, every sport is different, but always keep in mind how much “activity” is actually involved in a sport when determining if your child is being active enough throughout the day.
There are countless other activities that provide all the aforementioned benefits of “traditional” sports. Martial arts is a very popular activity for families. Most programs allow you to observe or even participate in a trial class to see if it is a good fit for your child. This is important because there are so many different kinds of martial arts, so ask around and contact different schools/gyms. Dance (ballet, hip hop, etc.) is certainly a fun way to burn calories. Rock climbing combines strength, endurance, concentration, planning, and trust. Parkour and other obstacle-course-based activities are gaining in popularity. Again, the goal is to have fun while remaining active - encourage your child to try new things.
Joining a local gym or community center may be an option for some families. Most gyms have treadmills and elliptical machines for aerobic activity, strength machines and free weights for resistance training, and there is often a multi-use area with different types of equipment to perform many different exercises. Some even have swimming pools and basketball courts. There should be adequate instruction provided before use of any gym equipment and all activities should be supervised by a knowledgeable adult. Call your local gym to see what how old your child needs to be to join and to learn which areas of the gym they are permitted to use.
You don’t have to sign a child up for a gym membership or even enroll them in organized sports to keep them active. There are so many different things you can do around the house or while you’re out that can help your family maintain a more active lifestyle:
When parents start to think about what they can do to help their overweight/obese child with weight maintenance, it can quickly get overwhelming. Please, don’t panic, you have time. The single most important thing you can do for your child is to promote a nutritious, well-balanced diet. Adopting a healthier, more physically active lifestyle is also an essential component of achieving and maintaining a healthier weight. As with most things that involve change, I always recommend making small changes over time. If your child has been sedentary for a long time and is suddenly asked to quickly increase his or her activity level, it probably won’t go over very well. Incorporate physical activities into the family’s daily/weekly schedule. If it’s something that’s done on a regular basis, it will become more routine. Whatever activity you choose for your child, it must be enjoyable for them. Sure, if they jog on the treadmill in the garage every day, they will certainly burn more calories compared to watching TV, but if they hate jogging on the treadmill, this will not be sustainable. Kids love variety, try as many different activities as possible to keep things fun and engaging. Most importantly, living an active lifestyle is a family affair. When I encourage children to be more physically active, I am also asking their parents and siblings to do the same. Parents should always be role models. If your child observes you engaging in daily physical activity, they are much more likely to do the same.
So what are you waiting for? Everyone GET UP AND MOVE!
Dr. Jervis Belarmino is a pediatrician in the Allegro Pediatrics Totem Lake location.