How Much Physical Activity Do Children Need?

Physical activity is a key requirement for healthy development in young children. Lack of adequate physical activity interferes with childhood development and increases the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type II diabetes as they age.

The good news is that most children love to be active, and parents can further motivate them to spend their energy doing the right kind of activities that benefits their health. Needless to say, physical activities for children should be fun, age- appropriate, and offer some variety.

According to The Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) America, toddlers need at least 30 min and preschoolers need about 60 min of structured physical activity per day. Both groups should have at least 60 min of additional unstructured physical activity daily. Because early childhood is a crucial time for physical development, children should be encouraged to have active lifestyles.

This is especially important today, as advances in technology have made it easy for children to be inactive for prolonged periods as they spend increasing  time in front of computers or television screens.

Kids playing soccer. Image Credit: Matimix / Shutterstock
Kids playing soccer. Image Credit: Matimix / Shutterstock

Parents and schools should facilitate structured as well as unstructured activity by providing environments that are conducive for physical activity at regular intervals throughout the day to prevent a sedentary lifestyle in children.

The SPARK Program

The Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids (SPARK) after school program promotes structured activity time during early childhood and engages kids in moderate to vigorous physical activity ( MVPA) for at least 50% of that time.

MVPAs focus on readiness skills including listening, following instructions, numbers, colors, shapes, science, literature, and social skills. SPARK also provides simple activities for families to do with their children with little to no pre-planning.

Three Types of Physical Activity

Children should take part in age-appropriate physical activities that belong to these three types:

  • Aerobic activity - Aerobic activity ranges from moderate-intensity to vigorous-intensity activities such as brisk walking or running and should constitute most of a child's physical activity in a day.
  • Muscle strengthening activities - Activities, such as push-ups, sit ups, tree-climbing, or gymnastics help strengthen muscles and should be part of a child’s structured physical activity at least 3 days per week.
  • Bone strengthening activities - Activities such as soccer or jumping rope help strengthen bones and should be done by children at  least 3 days per week.

Benefits of Exercise

Kids who are physically active enjoy a more healthy life. Benefits include the following:

  • They are leaner compared to kids who are inactive
  • They have stronger bones and muscles
  • They are less likely to become obese or overweight
  • They have lower blood pressure cholesterol levels
  • They have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • They sleep better and are also emotionally stronger
  • They have a more positive outlook on life

Tips for Safe Exercising

Some tips to ensure children stay safe while being active include the following:

  • Encourage them to start slowly and build up the difficulty level of activities
  • Do not let them overdo or over- exert themselves during structured physical activity
  • Help them do the right type and amount of activity appropriate for their age
  • Choose the right kind of activity for a child’s fitness level. Every child is unique.
  • Advise them to use the right kind of sports equipment or safety gear
  • Facilitate a safe and fun environment to do their activity
  • If the child develops a health issue after doing a new activity, do not hesitate to see a doctor

Not all kids have the same kind of interests, so parents need to get creative in looking for the activities their child enjoys doing. For a nature-loving child, a hike to collect rocks or leaves would be a good idea. A climbing wall or a jungle gym would be great for a kid who loves to climb. If a child is a bookworm, a stroll to the library might interest him or her. Just playing some favorite music and dancing in the living room is a great way to keep children active indoors.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Nov 12, 2018

Susha Cheriyedath

Written by

Susha Cheriyedath

Susha has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in Chemistry and Master of Science (M.Sc) degree in Biochemistry from the University of Calicut, India. She always had a keen interest in medical and health science. As part of her masters degree, she specialized in Biochemistry, with an emphasis on Microbiology, Physiology, Biotechnology, and Nutrition. In her spare time, she loves to cook up a storm in the kitchen with her super-messy baking experiments.

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