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Play! Run! Skip! 20 Ways to Keep Kids Active

Physically active children are smarter, happier, and healthier

Especial Skills" by Raulest1, Wikimedia commons.

Children need an Hour a Day of Physical Activity

Kids need to be active in order to feel good and to grow up strong, happy, intelligent, and healthy. The regulatory bodies that provide evidence-based recommendations for physical exercise advocate a minimum of an hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity starting at age five. Prior to that, babies, toddlers, and young children should be active several times a day, accumulating three hours of varying kinds and levels of physical activity spread throughout the day.

Ideas, Suggestions, and Recommendations for Parents

  1. Focus on fun. Help your child find activities he enjoys doing. When exercise is boring or feels like a chore, children are like adults. They’ll find reasons to avoid it.
  2. Limit screen time. Time on screens—watching television, playing video games, or surfing the web—gobbles up kids’ free time, leaving little or nothing left over for more physical activities.
  3. Make fitness a personal priority. Display a positive attitude that being active is fun and feels good. Parents who are good role models for active lifestyles are a lot more likely to have children who enjoy physical activity.
  4. Minimize sedentary commuting time. Look for schools and extracurricular activities your child can walk to, or that don’t require a long commute by car or bus.
  5. Go outside. From birth on, do your best to make sure your child gets some outdoor time every day, no matter the weather or your schedule.
  6. Get active as a family. Look for physically active things you can do together. Go to a playground, take a hike in the neighbourhood, play ball together, go for a bike ride.
  7. Ride a bike, walk, or run (don’t drive). Next to screen-time, an over-dependency on cars and public transit is the biggest reason kids and adults aren’t as active today as they once were.
  8. Give kids chores. Starting at age two or so, children can help with physically active chores around the house, including taking out the garbage, making beds, sweeping the kitchen, scrubbing floors, raking leaves, clearing snow, washing the car.
  9. Dance to the music. Set a time every day when you put on some music and everyone dances. Just before you start dinner, when everyone’s feeling frayed and grumpy, is a good time for a ten-minute dance break. You can rotate music choice privileges.
  10. Encourage your child to run. Teach him the joys of jogging. Run with him, or make it a social activity with friends or relatives.
  11. Create healthy competition. Competition can add fun to physical activity, as long as it’s done in the right spirit. Set up informal running races (giving the younger children an advance start), see who can do the most jumping jacks, who can skip rope longest, and so on.
  12. Make fitness time a social time. Get together with friends, neighbours, or family to do something active together.
  13. Take an after-dinner walk. Even if it’s just a ten-minute walk around the block, this can help with digestion, and also lead to a better sleep for everyone.
  14. Build family physical activity time into every weekend. Go for a hike or a bike ride, build a fort in a local wooded park, or play a game of soccer or baseball.
  15. Build muscles. Exercises that increase muscle strength, power, endurance, and mass include tug of war, resistance exercises, rope or tree climbing, swinging and climbing on playground equipment.
  16. Strengthen bones. Hopping, skipping, jumping rope, running, gymnastics, and sports such as basketball, volleyball, and tennis are all activities that help your child’s bones grow.
  17. Include physical activity as a school decision-making criterion. Choose a daycare, preschool, or school where the children spend time outside and are physically active.
  18. Become an activity advocate at your child’s school. Talk to teachers and other parents about implementing a fifteen minute exercise period out of every hour, as has proven beneficial in Finland and elsewhere. Speak up for increased physical education classes and daily activity opportunities. This is especially important for little kids, and for boys, and for kids with attention issues, but it’s healthy for everyone.
  19. Avoid collision sports before age 14. There’s increasing evidence of the permanent brain damage sustained by kids playing too aggressively when they’re too young. Football and hockey are the two sports most noted for problems.
  20. Strive for balance. Physical activity should be woven into daily life as happily and seamlessly as possible. When your child isn’t feeling well, or is experiencing unusual stress, loosen your expectations around exercise, and find longer activity periods when they work more easily into her life.

Research sources and more information

For Smarter, Happier, Healthier Kids, Keep Moving! By Dona Matthews

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, from the Canadian Society for Exercise

Physical Activity Tips from the Public Health Agency of Canada

Guidelines for Family Fitness, by Participaction

Recommendations for Physical Activity in Children, by the American Heart Association

How Finland Keeps Kids Focused through Free Play, by Tim Walker

The Benefits of Exercise on Your Kid’s Brain

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

More from Dona Matthews Ph.D.
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