Kids and exercise: What parents should know   – CHOC

When most adults think about exercise, they imagine working out in the gym, running on a treadmill or lifting weights. Adults are consistently told that exercise can improve their overall health, but what about exercise for kids?

Kids can definitely benefit from consistent exercise routines. But instead of the gym exercise for kids may mean playing and being physically active at recess, dance class or sports practice.

Here, CHOC experts answer parents’ commonly asked questions about how to help their kids exercise.

Why should my kids exercise regularly?

Everyone can benefit from regular exercise. Active kids will have:

  • Stronger muscles and bones.
  • Leaner bodies.
  • Less risk of becoming overweight.
  • A lower chance of getting type 2 diabetes.
  • Lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.
  • A better outlook on life.

Besides enjoying the health benefits of regular exercise, fit kids sleep better, may perform better in school and be less likely to develop depression. Kids who exercise regularly are also better able to handle physical and emotional challenges — like running to catch a bus or studying for a test.

How do I get my kids to exercise?

To help keep your kids fit and active:

  • Help your kids do a variety of fun age-appropriate activities.
  • Set a regular schedule for physical activity.
  • Make being active a part of daily life, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Embrace a healthier lifestyle yourself, so you’ll be a good role model for your family.
  • Be active together as a family.
  • Keep it fun, so your kids will come back for more.

Get nutrition and activity ideas from CHOC dietitians for toddlers, preschoolers and school-aged children.

What are some activity ideas to help my kids get active?

Parents should encourage their kids to do a variety of activities so that they can work on increasing strength, flexibility and endurance.

Improving your child’s strength can be done with safe strength training practices for kids, but can also be done by doing push-ups, stomach crunches, pull-ups and other exercises to help tone and strengthen muscles. They also improve their strength when they climb, do a handstand or wrestle. Muscle strengthening and aerobic exercises like running, jumping and hopping, also help build strong bones.

Stretching exercises help improve flexibility, allowing muscles and joints to bend and move easily through their full range of motion. Kids get chances every day to stretch when they reach for a toy, practice a split, or do a cartwheel. Dance, yoga, and martial arts, like karate, are examples of flexibility activities.

Endurance develops when kids regularly get aerobic activity. During aerobic exercise, large muscles move, the heart beats faster and a person breathes harder. 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. Aerobic activities include:

  • Basketball.
  • Bicycling.
  • Dancing.
  • Ice skating.
  • Inline skating.
  • Playing tag.
  • Soccer.
  • Swimming.
  • Tennis.
  • Walking.
  • Jogging.
  • Running.
  • Playing tag.
  • Dancing.

Is your teen tempted to take pre-workout or creatine before a workout or sports practice? Learn about their safety and effectiveness from CHOC experts.  

How do I get my kids get off their phones and screens?

Nowadays, kids and teens sit around a lot more than they used to. They spend hours every day in front of screens (TVs, smartphones, computers, tablets and gaming systems), but too much screen time and not enough physical activity can add up to unwanted weight gain.

One of the best ways to get kids to be more active is to limit the amount of time spent in sedentary activities, especially watching TV and using phones. To reduce the amount of time kids spend in front of screens, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents:

  • Put limits on the time their kids spend using media, which includes TV, social media and video games. Media should not take the place of getting enough sleep and being active.
  • Limit screen time to one hour a day or less for children 2 to 5 years old.
  • Discourage any screen time, except video-chatting, for kids younger than 18 months.
  • Choose high-quality programming and watch it with your kids to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • Keep TVs, computers, tablets, phones and video games out of children’s bedrooms.
  • Turn off screens during mealtimes.

Not only will limiting screen time be beneficial for your kids’ physical activity, but it will help their eyes too! A CHOC ophthalmologist explains how screen time may affect your child’s vision.  

How much exercise per day should my kids be getting?

Parents and caregivers can help ensure that their kids are active every day. In its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends:

School-age kids and teens (6 through 17 years) should get 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. This should include muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities at least 3 days a week.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following examples of muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening exercises for school-age children:

  • Games such as tug of war.
  • Resistance exercises using body weight or resistance bands.
  • Rope or tree climbing.
  • Climbing on playground equipment.
  • Some forms of yoga.
  • Hopping, skipping and jumping.
  • Jumping rope.
  • Running.
  • Sports that involve jumping or rapid changes in direction.

Preschool-aged children should actively play throughout the day. A set amount of time hasn’t been well defined, but a reasonable target could be three hours each day of light, moderate and vigorous activities. These should include unstructured active free play and planned, adult-led physical activity.

The CDC recommends using the talk test is a simple way to measure an activity’s intensity for your child. In general, if children are doing light-intensity physical activity, they will be able to talk easily. In moderate-intensity physical activity, they can talk but not sing during the activity. If children are doing vigorous-intensity physical activity, they will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

Children under age 3 were not included in the Physical Activity for Americans guidelines, but exercise guidelines from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom recommend toddlers be active for at least 3 hours throughout the day. This should include light activity, active play, and energetic movement, like hopping, running, and jumping.

Young children should not be inactive for long periods of time — no more than one hour unless they’re sleeping. And school-age kids should not be inactive for periods longer than 2 hours.

We are excited to offer the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine for children and teens. To receive a vaccine, contact your CHOC primary care pediatrician to make an appointment.