Children & Exercise: How to Keep Children Active & Healthy

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 2:50pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Most adults get their exercise through deliberate activities such as running or walking, riding a stationary bike, or taking an aerobics class. They do this for the sake of reaching or maintaining a preferred weight and taking advantage of the many physical and psychological benefits of exercise. While children stand to benefit from exercise in the same ways adults do, their reasons for exercising are completely different. Whether they are participating in a team sport, playing games at recess, or riding bikes with friends in the neighborhood, children often only get exercise simply by doing something they find fun.

Children who exercise are healthier

Unfortunately, many children today consider sedentary activities such as watching television and playing video games more fun than games that involve physical activity. In the face of a growing epidemic of childhood obesity, we must rethink our priorities and put our health and the health of our children first. Children who lead active lives will likely have leaner bodies, stronger bones and muscles, improved coordination, better posture, and fewer health complications as adults. In addition to the physical benefits, active children concentrate better in school, have increased self-esteem, are less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, and have a better overall outlook on life.

Encourage positive activity habits and limit negative ones

To increase your child's activity level, you must first disengage them from activities that promote idleness and then re-engage them with safe, fun, active alternatives. Like any lifestyle change, this takes determination and dedication. Following are some tips that will help you make the shift.

Limit television/computer/video games

Most children spend at least four to six hours per day on these sedentary activities. This should be reduced to no more than one to two hours per day. You will likely face resistance to this change. To make the transition easier, make televisions, computers, and video games less of a focal point. For example, try removing them from bedrooms, limiting the household to one television, and designating one family media area. If you don't trust yourself to enforce the rules you've made, eliminate the problem. Video games, computer games, and even televisions are not necessities in a child's life.

Also see the following article on TheDietChannel: Does TV Make Kids Fat?

Influence your child's behavior through example

Children imitate adult behavior. Children with active parents are usually active themselves. Children whose parents watch excessive amounts of television are likely to do the same.

Play with your children

Play tag or hide and seek, kick a soccer ball, or take a walk around the neighborhood. Playing together is not only an opportunity to exercise, it is also bonding time.

Make exercise/activity fun

Find out what physical activities your child finds fun and make those activities a priority.

Offer positive reinforcement to your child

Increase your child's self-confidence and satisfaction with exercise by encouraging him and offering personal compliments. Telling children they are doing a good job is one of the best ways to keep them doing a good job. Be careful not to use sedentary activities such as computer time as a reward.

Accept and love your child at any weight

Children come in all shapes and sizes. Resist pressures to change or control your child's weight. Teach him that physical activity will keep him healthy and strong at any size. If you accept your child as he is, he will be more likely to accept and feel good about himself.

How much activity/exercise is enough?

According to the 2005 dietary guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), all children two years and older should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise on most, preferably all, days of the week. It is important to note that not all of the physical activity has to be completed at one time to reap the benefits.

Encouraging your child to exercise: facing resistance to change

You will likely face strong resistance to some of these changes. Remember that they are in the best interest of your child. Whether or not your child likes you for it, it is your role as a parent to set limits. Whatever you do, do not give in to the pleading, or your child will resist with more force each time.

Start your child's activities today

Start today by brainstorming with your child to find a variety of activities that are a good fit for his personality, ability, age and interests. Then give your child as many opportunities as possible to be active.