It can seem like kids are constantly on the move. But many hours of children’s days are spent sitting at school or in front of computers, mobile devices or TVs. According to Elizabeth Anne Huffman, M.D., a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation,Opens new window this drastically reduces the daily activity level of many patients she sees.
“Regular exercise has many health benefits for children – and adults, too,” she says. “It helps us all maintain a healthy weight and build strong bones, muscles and joints. Exercise is also an excellent stress buster, encourages better sleep and will help your child concentrate at school.”
With a little effort and an awareness of the dangers of too much time spent sitting, families can become more active and have fun along the way.
Children of all ages, as well as adults, should be active for 60 minutes every day for good health.
“Toddlers are naturally very active, but you can start building healthy habits by making active pursuits part of their routine,” Dr. Huffman advises. “Go out and explore the neighborhood on foot, head to the park or dance together.”
For young children, it’s important to limit screen time, which stops them from being active. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children under 2 years of age should avoid screen time (including TVs, mobile devices or computers) as researchers and doctors know very little about the impact of this on rapidly developing young brains. For children older than 2, screen time should be limited to no more than two hours a day, and the media consumed (apps, shows, etc.) should be age appropriate and of a high quality.
“No matter what your child’s age, don’t let them have a TV in the bedroom, and set limits on screen time,” Dr. Huffman says.
Any type of activity that increases the heart rate and breathing will help your child. The key is that your child enjoys the activity. While a grownup may see the greater good in a boring hour spent on an exercise bike at the gym, children who are not having fun quickly stop doing that activity and move on to something else.
“Remember that you are your child’s best inspiration,” Dr. Huffman says. “Know that whatever your child sees you doing, he or she will likely want to do, too.”
Team sports are best enjoyed once children are developmentally ready to understand the basic rules of a sport and work with other kids to reach a common goal. Although each child is different, this typically does not happen until around age 5 or 6. Dr. Huffman therefore advises waiting until that age before signing children up for activities like soccer or T-ball.
“Once your child is ready, participating in team sports can be a great way for your child to get regular exercise, learn new skills, make new friends and gain experience committing to something and being part of a team,” she says.
It can be tempting to concentrate on one sport your child excels in. Coaches sometimes even encourage this approach as specializing in one sport does make one better faster. However, there is a downside. Playing one sport year-round can lead to overuse injuries, especially during the teen years, Dr. Huffman warns.
“It’s best for children to explore a variety of sports, rather than pick just one,” she says. “Different sports require the use of different muscle groups, which is better for overall good health.”
If your child wants to quit a team sport mid-season, talk to him or her to find out why. Children are maturing emotionally as well as physically. They may lack the life experience to put one bad experience — a game lost or a skill they just couldn’t master on the first try — into perspective.
“This can be a good opportunity to teach your child how to deal with setbacks and that perseverance can pay off,” Dr. Huffman says.
On the other hand, if a child really doesn’t like a particular sport, forcing participation does little good. Instead, encourage your child to try something else next season.
“Keep a mellow approach and remember that if your child enjoys a sport and is having fun, he or she will want to continue it,” Dr. Huffman says.