How Much Physical Activity Does Your Child Need?

Posted at 12:33 PM on Mar 7, 2024

Northwest Family Clinic – How Much Physical Activity Does Your Child Need

We are no strangers to the world we live in that is dominated by technology, specifically screens. All of us, including children, are experiencing a significant uptick in the amount of time we are staring at our devices, and this has significant effects on our health. Specifically, physical activity or the lack of it as a result of increased screen time. As family medicine practitioners with years of experience in pediatric care, we have seen firsthand the positive impacts of physical activity on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children. The question then arises, how much physical activity does your child really need? Let us explain.

Understanding the Basics of Physical Activity for Children Under 6 Years of Age

For children younger than 6, physical activity is important; however, the focus should be on play rather than structured exercise. It is recommended by The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for children under 6 years of age to get at least 180 minutes of daily exercise or activity.  With children under 6, formal exercise is not the focus, but simply encouraging your child to engage in active play for several hours each day, which is spread throughout the day, is key to their development. In addition to free play for preschool aged children, one hour or more of formal exercise like throwing a ball, playing catch, learning to swim etc. can be helpful for improving their motor skills.

As parents, we far too often are telling our children to sit down, be still, don’t run, etc. However, it is important to let them play. Let them run. Let them be their wild little selves to get the amount of activity they need.

Activity for Children Over 6 Years of Age

According to the AAP, children aged 6 years and older should engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. This recommendation is grounded in extensive research showing the benefits of regular exercise for children, including improved cardiovascular health, stronger muscles and bones, better sleep, and a lower risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Breaking Down the 60 Minutes

The 60 minutes of activity for older children should not be viewed as a rigid requirement but rather as a goal to work towards, incorporating a variety of activities. This time can be broken down into shorter periods that add up throughout the day. The activities should include:

  • Aerobic Exercises: Most of your child's daily physical activity should be aerobic. Activities like walking, running, swimming, and cycling are excellent for improving heart health and stamina.
  • Muscle-strengthening Activities: Incorporate these at least three days a week. Climbing and gymnastics are great examples that children tend to enjoy.
  • Bone-strengthening Activities: Activities like jumping rope or playing basketball, also recommended three times a week, help build strong bones.
  • Tailoring Activities to Age and Interest

It's important to choose activities that are age-appropriate and align with your child's interests. Younger children may enjoy playground play, dance, or swimming lessons, while older children might be more interested in team sports, biking, or running. Encouraging your child to explore a variety of activities can help them discover what they enjoy most, promoting a lifelong habit of physical activity.

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The Role of Parents and Caregivers

As parents or caregivers we play a crucial role in setting a good example. Meaning, if you are more likely to sit on the couch and watch television, so is your child. Be a role model for health for your child and engage in physical activities with them. This not only motivates them but also strengthens family bonds. Moreover, limiting screen time and encouraging outdoor play are practical steps you can take to ensure your child gets the needed physical activity. Remember, limiting screen time is good for all of us and so is physical activity!

Overcoming Challenges

Incorporating physical activity into daily life can sometimes be challenging due to busy schedules, lack of access, or children’s increasing interest in screen time. Creativity in finding opportunities for activity, such as family walks after dinner, weekend hikes, or indoor obstacle courses on rainy days, can help overcome these barriers. Find an activity that the whole family enjoys and can make part of your daily routine. Think of activity time as a non-negotiable meeting you cannot miss. Put it in your calendar as such, block the time so there are no exceptions.

Starting Small

If activity has never been part of your family’s norm, be sure to start small. Remember any activity is better than none. Start small and be sure to get the whole family on board by making it fun! Remember, the goal is to foster a love for movement that will last a lifetime, not just to meet a daily quota.