“3, 2, 1, ready or not, here I come!”
Children race through the park, soaking in the sun while they search for their next hiding spot in the latest round of hide-and-seek. When that playtime can happen, it’s often the best part of a child’s day.
That all counts as exercise for kids. And while it comes naturally to some children, many others would prefer to spend hours scrolling through YouTube videos or binge-watching the latest television show.
During the pandemic, children are getting as little as two hours of exercise per week, according to a study published in the journal Obesity.
It’s important for parents to teach children the benefits of exercise from an early age, said Dr. Nick Edwards, sports medicine pediatrician and associate professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“It is never too early to teach the concept that we need to regularly move our bodies to stay healthy — just as we teach children at a young age about what kind of foods we should eat to be healthy,” he said.
Researchers have seen a decline in the amount of physical activity children as young as 6 years old engage in per day, according to a 2019 study published in Pediatrics. At the same time, children 8 to 12 years old are getting almost five hours of screen time per day while 13- to 18-year-olds are spending over seven hours glued to their screens, according to a 2019 report from Common Sense Media.
Before teaching children the benefits of exercise, Edwards said parents need to model that concept to set an example. When parents are working out, they can invite their kids to join them.
And kids don’t need to do several hours of daily exercise. They should engage in at least one hour of physical activity each day, he said. While any form of movement should be encouraged, activities that make kids breathe faster and sweat are better, Edwards explained.
Physical activity can be split into two categories, aerobic exercise and strength training, said CNN contributor Stephanie Mansour, host of “Step It Up With Steph” on PBS.
Aerobic activities get their heart rate up, which helps maintain cardiovascular health, while strength training helps build muscle, she said.
“This doesn’t mean that you should send your children on runs or have them lift weights,” Mansour said. Healthy forms of activity include frisbee, monkey bars or jumping on a trampoline, she said.
Growing beyond team sports
For children who don’t participate in team sports, Mansour recommended they explore other activities like swimming or hiking with an adult.
Parents can also offer children a variety of exercising options so the child can try them out and select their favorite, she said.
“Allowing your child to find what sports or physical activities they’re interested in early on can give them something to look forward to while maintaining good health and fitness during the school year,” Mansour said.
When Edwards recalled being introduced as a child to activities like tennis and cross-country skiing, which he thought were “silly” at the time. As he grew up, he realized they were a fun way to exercise.
He recommended parents persevere in having children try out new activities, particularly if the kids aren’t interested at first.
“Even if they don’t recognize it at the time, it may benefit them years later when they are looking for activities they can do as an adult,” Edwards said.
When children are not motivated to exercise
One way to encourage children to exercise is to set a time limit for how long they can watch television each day, Mansour said. Additionally, send your children outside to play before dinner, even if it’s only for 30 minutes, she added.
“Setting this outdoor play time before dinner gives children something to look forward to in their daily routine,” she said.
Adults also can sneak in activity throughout the day, by doing things such as taking the stairs with your children instead of the elevator or walking instead of driving to some places, Edwards said.
“The best exercise for people is the exercise that they will do — and if it can be established as part of a person’s normal routine and not something that is ‘extra’ or ‘expendable,’ it is more likely to be successful,” he said.
Older kids and teenagers are often looking to better themselves when it comes to physical activity, Mansour said. Parents should encourage their children to make exercising a competition against themselves so they remain motivated.
Parents should also teach their children that exercising has long-term health and fitness benefits, Mansour said, and any form of movement can set up healthy habits for the future.
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