The Benefits of Exercise for Kids

Kids need to move. From school-age up through young adulthood, kids should get at least 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day. Unfortunately, most kids aren’t getting the recommended amount. The result?  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Here are some tips and information to help make physical activity a regular part of your child’s life.   
Why is exercise important?
The health benefits of exercise are immense. On a physical level, exercise builds strong bones, joints and muscles. It helps prevent obesity, decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Kids who exercise regularly sleep better and have stronger immune systems.  
Equally important are the mental benefits of exercise. Kids who exercise perform better academically. They have more confidence and stronger self-esteem and are better able to handle life’s daily challenges. For kids who have trouble focusing (including kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or who have depression, the therapeutic benefits of exercise are as effective as many medications. Exercise also helps kids release stress and maintain emotional stability.
Why are kids today so sedentary?
Kids today are far less physically active mostly because they spend so little time engaging in “free play” outdoors and so much time in front of screens. Not all screen time is bad – kids rely on phones and devices not only for entertainment, but also to interact with online information, communicate with peers, do schoolwork and create content. But it’s important to make sure that tech use, like all other activities, has reasonable limits. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
What type of exercise is best?
While strength and flexibility are important components of exercise, the greatest health benefits of exercise are associated with building endurance. Choose aerobic activities that increase your child’s heart rate and breathing.
How can I help my son get more exercise?
For younger kids, the key is keeping it fun. If kids don’t enjoy an activity, they’re not going to do it. Keep exercise simple with imaginative games that involve throwing or kicking a ball, chasing bubbles, jumping over obstacles or going out for a walk or scavenger hunt. If one activity gets boring, move along to another.
Exercise together. Take a daily walk after dinner or start a family tradition of weekend hikes or bike rides with a healthy picnic lunch. Studies show that exercising with a parent has a meaningful and long-lasting impact on children and encourages a lifelong love of exercise.  
You are also the best fitness role model for your child. If you love a sport like tennis or swimming, share that with your child. Let them see you making exercise a regular part of your day.   
Children are also often motivated by their friends, so find out what activities your child’s friends are participating in. Invite friends over and host active play dates to help everyone be healthy.  
My teenage daughter is really busy with school. How can I help her get more exercise?
Older kids have busier schedules, so it isn’t surprising that physical activity tends to decline in this age group. Remind your daughter that exercise can help her achieve her academic goals, feel good about herself and relieve stress. Encourage her in activities that she can share with you or with peers; a yoga or dance class, a hike with friends, a game of ultimate Frisbee or even a long walk.
If she’s having trouble finding the time to be active, help her go through her daily schedule and look for blocks of time that can be dedicated to exercise. A particularly good opportunity is right after school, when physical activity can help kids decompress and clear their heads before beginning homework assignments.
What about organized sports?
While organized sports can be a positive experience for kids of all ages, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. Younger kids may still be developing basic skills, so it’s important to find a team that emphasizes participation and fun rather than competition and winning. Before committing to a team, talk to the coach or to other parents who have kids in the program.
Additionally, while some coaches excel at helping kids and make the game fun for everyone, there can be pressure on coaches to identify talent and win. For older kids, this can mean that better players are pushed hard and play constantly, while less-skilled kids spend most of their time on the bench. Ultimately it’s not ideal for either group – kids who show early talent are often burnt out or injured by age 10 or 12. And the kids who aren’t as good don’t have the opportunity to develop their skills and often lose interest, even though sports aptitude often manifests after puberty.  
The bottom line is that while organized sports can be a fun way for kids to be active, experience teamwork and gain a sense of accomplishment, parents need to be aware of the potential challenges.  Keep an eye on your child and make sure that he or she is really enjoying the sport, not just doing it to please you.  
What is the most important thing I can do to help my child be active?
Get outside together. For young children, a backyard, park or playground is the perfect place to engage in free play where they can be creative and make up their own games. Feed their imaginations with toys that can be used in many ways, like balls, pucks and hockey sticks and playground chalk. For older kids, look for local hikes, outdoor fitness classes and neighborhood running or bike paths. Share your love of being active outdoors, and your kids will make it part of their lives, too.                                                                 
Dr. Mona Luke-Zeitoun is a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric pulmonologist in the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Palo Alto and San Carlos Centers. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.  


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