Is Your Child Getting Enough Exercise?


Dr. Kymm Ballard - Exercise and fitness are an important part of a child’s life and growth. Active children reap a number of benefits, including stronger muscles and bones, a decreased chance of becoming overweight, and increased happiness and self esteem.

Despite these positive acknowledgments, a large number of American children still fail to get the suggested amount of daily exercise. In fact, only one in three children are physically active each day.

That’s not good, especially given the alarming number of children in the country considered obese or overweight. Recent data estimates that 17% of American children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese. That accounts for nearly 13 million youth.

Getting an appropriate amount of daily exercise isn’t a huge time commitment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children and adults alike have at least one hour of physical activity each day.

Within the 60 minutes of physical activity recommended, there are three types of activity that should be included.

Aerobic exercise: This is the physical activity we normally envision in our minds — kids running, jumping, and being lively. Aerobic activity is any set of actions that get the heart pumping, leading to a healthy cardiovascular system. Aerobic exercises can involve moderate activities such as walking, or more vigorous ones such as running, biking, and playing a sport that involves regular, fast movement.

Muscle strengthening: These are activities that target a certain set of muscles. From planks to push-ups to sit-ups, the CDC recommends children do muscle strengthening exercises at least three days a week.

Bone strengthening: These are activities that lead to better bone health. Activities that involve weight bearing and resistance, such as running and swimming, are an excellent way to improve bone density, which can be key in reducing the chance of medical conditions such as osteoporosis. Bone strengthening activities are especially important if osteoporosis is a pre-existing condition in a family. Like muscle strengthening activities, these should be done at least three times a week.

The great thing about children is their flexibility and ability to do all kinds of exercise. Where adults often restrict themselves to running and/ or lifting weights, children can do all sorts of activities that fit into the three above categories. For example, gymnastics and hanging from monkey bars are perfect for muscle strengthening. Playing tag in the schoolyard can be a vigorous aerobic exercise. And running around in the beach surf tossing a Frisbee can provide the resistance needed to strengthen a child’s bones.

What this means is that you don’t need to force a child to start training like an adult. Adults and physical educators simply need to provide the time, space, and equipment to get them started. Kids are creative, and can take it from there.

This highlights the importance of effective PE lesson plans, and the emphasis a primary school must put on their students’ physical fitness. Physical education teachers are mindful of the three categories of activity, and do their best incorporate all three into their lesson plans.

Because physical education teachers are aware of the guidelines and best practices for their students, it is important that children participate in daily PE classes. If children are not participating in classes like these, parents may need to supervise their children to see that they are receiving the required amount of activity each day. If you are not sure about how much physical education your child receives, your child’s school will be able to tell you.

National Physical Fitness Guidelines

While kids can get creative, there are national physical activity guidelines that have been set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These guidelines emphasize the 60 minutes a day, three categories of exercise mentioned above.

The full report also talks about the role schools must play in encouraging physical activity in students. It says classes should be taught by trained specialists so that all of the guidelines are met in classes. The guidelines also suggest schools begin a series of 5 to 10 minute activity breaks, where planned movement serves as a short time off from regular classroom lessons.

Strategies to Get Kids Moving

There are challenges in getting kids on their feet, especially with entertainment often just a touch screen away. In a survey of American parents conducted by the YMCA, half of parents reported that they spend leisure time with their kids playing a game on the computer. A similar 42% say they believe social networks and technological distractions are preventing their children from getting the physical activity they need.

This data emphasizes the importance of meeting kids where they’re at, and engaging them in ways that resonate with them.

For example, if a child is hooked on technology, why not get them a fitness tracker where they can monitor the number of steps they’ve taken in a day. While fitness trackers for adults have gotten relatively sophisticated and include calorie counts, heart rates, sleep patterns, and more, children really just need a simple wearable that can translate their physical activity into some sort of quantifiable figure. Most connect with some sort of computer or smartphone interface, meaning children can still get the technology time they crave — but only after they’ve done their physical activity.

Another strategy to get kids active is to have them forget they’re doing exercise in the first place. Try finding other children in the neighborhood and work out shifts of parental supervision where children are encouraged to head to the nearby playground or play soccer baseball along the road. Linking exercise with friendship and fun means kids will be more eager to get their 60 minutes each day.

That being said, it’s important for youth to gain a positive association with exercise and sport early in life. Inactivity in childhood can lead to inactivity later in life, which means building a routine of physical fitness can have implications long after a child stops being a child.

Dr. Kymm Ballard is the Executive Director for SPARK, a division of School Specialty, Inc. Kymm is the former Physical Education, Athletics and Sports Medicine Consultant with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.  Her professional experiences include service for more than a decade as a physical education teacher, several years as an administrator and the co-developer of North Carolina’s first high school demonstration school. Kymm’s direct service to children influences her work at the national level today. She wrote, advocated for and promoted the Healthy Active Children Policy of the NC State Board of Education and the state’s Standards for Physical Education.