Even the most couch-loving, sports-averse child can be inspired to love exercise, if you put the right strategies in place.
Maximising movement in childhood
Every parent instinctively knows that it’s important for their child to get plenty of physical activity in their day. As a result of moving more, kids seem happier, calmer and often sleep better. However, when you combine the demanding work and family life schedules that parents have to juggle, plus the fact that many modern leisure pursuits are sedentary and screen-based, it can mean that kids get less physical activity than they need. Only 12% of children aged 5-12 meet both the physical activity and sedentary screen-based behaviour guidelines (as outlined below). (1) Both children and parents stand to gain when little ones are happy, healthy and burning off enough steam, so here, we show you how to get your kids moving.
Why being physically active matters at this age
Ensure healthy development: Exercise is vital to help children develop a healthy heart and lungs, bones, muscles and joints, as well as improving their coordination, strength and muscle control, flexibility, balance and posture. All up, active bodies are healthy bodies.
Boost their brains: Encouraging kids to be active can translate into better marks at school. In one study, researchers found that physical fitness in children (especially aerobic capacity and motor ability) is associated with a greater volume of grey matter in several cortical and subcortical brain regions important for executive function as well as for learning, motor and visual processes. According to the scientists, these exercise-induced changes in brain structure in turn improve children's academic performance. (2)
Promote a healthy weight: Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to ensure a child stays in the healthy weight range. This is particularly important, given one in four Australian children are overweight or obese (3), and obesity in childhood is a predictor of being overweight as an adult.
Strong self-esteem: Research shows that exercise has positive effects on self-esteem in children and young people. (4) It also protects against depression (5), helps reduce stress and encourages a positive outlook on life, as well as increasing confidence (including in social settings) and self-worth.
How much physical activity do kids need?
The national physical activity guidelines recommend that children accumulate 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day involving mainly aerobic activities, as well as several hours of a variety of light physical activities. Activities that are vigorous, as well as those that strengthen muscle and bone, should be incorporated at least three days per week. It’s also recommended that kids break up long periods of sitting as often as possible and limit sedentary recreational screen time to no more than two hours per day. (6)
Handy tips to get kids moving more
Choose a qualified coach: If you’re booking your child into any organised team sports or fitness activities, ensure the coach or facilitator is a Registered Personal Trainer or qualified exercise professional, and experienced in instructing young children.
Get them into sports & activities: Help your kids discover a love of sports/activities by picking one they have a natural interest in and perhaps trialling a few first (for instance, via school holiday sports programs.) Whether it’s a team sport or martial arts, ballet, Little Athletics, swimming or horse riding, all that matters is your child enjoys it. It can also help if they enrol in the same team sport or activity as their friends, and if you show an active interest.
Spread activity across the day: Your child doesn’t need to do the recommended hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity (which might be things like fast walking, riding a bike or scooter, playing, running or organised sports) all in one go. You can spread it across the day. A quick walk to the shops, a scooter ride around the block or kicking a ball at the park or in your backyard all add up.
Sell it as play time, not ‘exercise’: Children respond better to activities that seem fun and enjoyable, rather than those that are ‘chores’ or that they ‘have’ to do. Rather than nagging your kids to go do some exercise, make physical activity enticing by saying something like ‘why don’t we go out for a bike ride together and see how many laps we can do’, ‘how about we go for a fun outing to the zoo/beach/park?’ or ‘let’s race each other at the park and the fastest chooses what we have for dinner tonight.’
Create mini movement opportunities: As well as structured physical activity, incidental bouts of movement are also great for kids. Things like walking to school, helping rake up the leaves or wash the car, playing handball or a spontaneous dance off to their favourite music all count as exercise. Keeping active toys (like Frisbees, skipping ropes, hula hoops and balls) handy can also inspire spontaneous movement.
Curb screen time: Screen time is the enemy of physical activity, but what’s a parent to do when kids find it so appealing? Firstly, you can be your child’s best role model and keep your own screen time to a minimum. You can also set ‘tech-free zones’ at home (for instance bedrooms and the dining table) and set clear rules around how much screen time kids are allowed and when. Encourage other activities that don’t involve screens and aim to be active as a family.
Get active today
Find a Registered Personal Trainer, gym, wellness studio or activity in your area at fitnessaustralia.com.au
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare physical activity statistics
- Irene Esteban-Cornejo, Cristina Cadenas-Sanchez, Oren Contreras-Rodriguez, Juan Verdejo-Roman, Jose Mora-Gonzalez, Jairo H. Migueles, Pontus Henriksson, Catherine L. Davis, Antonio Verdejo-Garcia, Andrés Catena, Francisco B. Ortega. A whole brain volumetric approach in overweight/obese children: Examining the association with different physical fitness components and academic performance. The ActiveBrains project. NeuroImage, 2017; 159: 346
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare overweight & obesity statistics
- Ekeland E, Heian F, Hagen KB, Abbott J, Nordheim L., Exercise to improve self-esteem in children and young people, Cochrane Database Syst Rev.2004;(1):CD003683.
- Tonje Zahl, Silje Steinsbekk, Lars Wichstrøm. Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood.Pediatrics, 2017; e20161711
- Australia’s Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for Children and Young People