My 4-year-old loves to make up “exercises” and goes full-on trainer mode when she wants my husband and me to follow along (and then corrects us when we “do it wrong,” of course). While her wobbly backward walk or the one-leg pirate dance may not produce the same results as P90X or Crossfit, I try to support her in doing this as much as possible. Encouraging her to be physically active fosters creativity and builds the foundation for a love of fitness. And these days, kids’ fitness is more important than ever.
As an Adapted Physical Education teacher with an M.A. in Special (Adapted) Physical Education, I know firsthand how essential physical activity is to a child’s overall well-being. I also know how detrimental it can be when children are not given the opportunity or encouraged to get up and move in a way that excites them.
Every day I see students working towards a healthy life through play, sports, and fitness activities. I also see the other, much scarier side of what happens when students become too sedentary. Or when they cannot access programs or role models to promote a healthy and active lifestyle. And it is not just in my schools and community. Childhood obesity is a significant problem across the USA, with 13.7 million children and adolescents (or 18.5% of those ages 2-19) considered obese.1
Why Kids Fitness Matters
It is so important for kids to develop an understanding of and appreciation for the health-related benefits of physical activity. Kids need to see how fun it is to be active and how much exercise can impact an individual.
How Physical Activity Impacts Us All
Regular physical activity is one of the best things we can promote to our children to aid their overall development. Fitness-based exercises and games offer countless benefits, including:
- Helps to build muscular strength
- Develops endurance (muscular and cardiovascular)
- Leads to improved cognition and academic performance
- Supports functional flexibility for daily living
- Increases confidence & self-esteem
- Builds teamwork, leadership, and social skills
There is hardly any area of our kids’ lives it doesn’t touch!
How Early Exercise Impacts Future Health
Studies have found that not only does exercise by children provide health benefits early on, but it can have a major impact on the lives of these same children well into adulthood.2,3 Researchers found that children who engaged in regular exercise were more likely to appreciate it later in life. What was even more interesting, however, was that early childhood exercise continued to have a positive impact on cognition, bone mass and density, and even how the body processed high-fat diets years later.2
The result? Children who exercise regularly seem less likely to develop serious issues later in life. This includes Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer. In other words, a person who spends their childhood being very physically active continues to reap the benefits as an adult, even if they are much less active later on.2
What Is Keeping Kids So Sedentary Now?
When you look at the research, it is easy to see just how vital fitness is to overall development. What is not as easy, however, is ensuring kids get adequate physical activity to make that happen. It is recommended that school-age children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.4,5 But the truth is, many are not even coming close.
We have all heard the comparisons about how much less active kids are compared to when we were young. It is easy to see how different my childhood was compared to my kids. Thanks in part to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, advances in technology that creep into our free time, and other issues affecting access, many kids just are not as active in their daily lives as they were 30 years ago.
To add insult to injury, schools are no longer the place to rely on for daily physical activity, as physical education programs are being reduced or cut entirely across the nation.
How to Encourage Physical Activity
Creating a love of being physically active does not require a substantial financial investment, a crammed family schedule, or even a lot of extra time and attention. One of the best ways to promote child development is through play. Play is the perfect vehicle for increasing overall health and physical fitness levels. Here are some of the best (and easiest to implement) ways to encourage physical activity in kids.
1. Encourage exploration of lots of different activities and sports.
Encouraging exploration does not mean you must sign your child up for every sport in every season. You may dish out lots of money only to discover that they hate soccer, tennis, or taekwondo. In the past few months alone, my daughter has asked to play soccer, tennis, hockey, and baseball, to join a kid’s fitness class, and to sign up for gymnastics. And she is only 4!
Saying yes to all of that would add an enormous amount of pressure to both our schedule and our budget. It just isn’t reasonable. And family time, as well as downtime, needs to be protected too. Rather than sign her up for lots of different lessons, we focused on one official activity each season (like ice skating once per week for a session). But we also encouraged her interests by looking for easy opportunities to try the others.
For example, we purchased inexpensive tennis rackets, took family trips to the community tennis courts a few Saturdays, and built a DIY balance beam for the backyard. There are always ways to modify activities to make them age-appropriate or more accessible for kids of all ages and ability levels. The important thing is to encourage their interests and to be their champion. And you just may find something they are truly passionate about!
2. Be active as a family and model behavior.
Being active together as a family is fun and shows your kids that being active is a part of your family values. Look in your community for local family-friendly events like 5Ks (which typically have a kid’s fun run component as well), mommy and me yoga classes, or stroller skating at a local ice rink. These really are as fun as they sound and let even the littlest family member get in on the fun!
Rather stay home? Take some family walks in the evening, stream workout videos or dance games on the TV to do together. Or break into a game of Twister. There is no right way to get fit and many ways to do it at home. Try inserting it somewhere into the regular family routine!
3. Find ways to make it fun.
Add some gross motor toys to mix if you’re stuck at home. Balance boards, river stones, jump ropes, or balloons get them moving during play. You’d be amazed at how much movement balloons can bring out just by playing naturally! Other examples: try counting in a different language while holding a stretch. Or, if walking to the store, see if your kids can gallop or skip instead. Or search on Pinterest for some easy and free ideas to get them moving.
When my daughter wants to take the lead and makes up funny yoga poses or shows us how she “exercises,” I try to play along rather than trying to show her the “right way” to do something. It also helps build her confidence and self-esteem, getting her to take the lead. And, of course, music always helps to make anything fun as well!
4. Ensure they are prepared for physical education at school.
Whether they get daily gym or only have it once a week, the lessons learned in physical education classes are invaluable. They play an important role in both physical and social/emotional development. Help them maximize the limited class time by ensuring they are dressed and prepared on their gym day. Sneakers and clothing that are easy to move in are essentials for full participation. After school, ask about what sports or skills they are practicing. See if they can teach you something they learned–kids love getting to be a teacher!
Possessing the knowledge and skills to live a healthy lifestyle, including participating in fitness and other physical activities, allows children to engage in meaningful exercise throughout their lives. It also teaches some great life lessons. It’s our job as parents to help get them moving, and it can be fun along the way!