Anyone who's seen kids on a playground knows that most are naturally physically active and love to move around. But what might not be apparent is that climbing to the top of a slide or swinging from the monkey bars can help lead kids to a lifetime of being active.
As they get older, it can be a challenge for kids to get enough daily activity. Reasons include increasing demands of school, a feeling among some kids that they aren't good at sports, a lack of active role models, and busy working families.
And even if kids have the time and the desire to be active, parents may not feel comfortable letting them freely roam the neighborhood as kids did generations ago. So their opportunities might be limited.
In spite of these barriers, parents can instill a love of activity and help kids fit it into their everyday lives. Doing so can set healthy patterns that will last into adulthood.
When kids are active, their bodies can do the things they want and need them to do. Why? Because regular exercise provides these benefits:
Healthy, physically active kids also are more likely to be academically motivated, alert, and successful. And physical competence builds self-esteem at every age.
So there's a lot to gain from regular physical activity, but how do you encourage kids to do it? The three keys are:
When kids enjoy an activity, they want to do more of it. Practicing a skill — whether it's swimming or riding a tricycle — improves their abilities and helps them feel accomplished, especially when the effort is noticed and praised. These good feelings often make kids want to continue the activity and even try others.
The best way for kids to get physical activity is by incorporating physical activity into their daily routine. Toddlers and preschoolers should play actively several times a day. Children 6 to 17 years should do 60 minutes or more physical activity daily. This can include free play at home, active time at school, and participation in classes or organized sports.
Preschoolers: Preschoolers need play and exercise that helps them continue to develop important motor skills — kicking or throwing a ball, playing tag or follow the leader, hopping on one foot, riding a trike or bike with training wheels, freeze dancing, or running obstacle courses.
Although some sports leagues may be open to kids as young as 4, organized and team sports are not recommended until they're a little older. Preschoolers can't understand complex rules and often lack the attention span, skills, and coordination needed to play sports. Instead of learning to play a sport, they should work on fundamental skills.
School-age: With school-age kids spending more time on sedentary pursuits like watching TV and playing computer games, the challenge for parents is to help them find physical activities they enjoy and feel successful doing. These can range from traditional sports like baseball and basketball to martial arts, biking, hiking, and playing outside.
As kids learn basic skills and simple rules in the early school-age years, there might only be a few athletic standouts. As kids get older, differences in ability and personality become more apparent. Commitment and interest level often go along with ability, which is why it's important to find an activity that's right for your child. Schedules start getting busy during these years, but don't forget to set aside some time for free play.
Teenagers: Teens have many choices when it comes to being active — from school sports to after-school interests, such as yoga or skateboarding. It's important to remember that physical activity must be planned and often has to be sandwiched between various responsibilities and commitments.
Do what you can to make it easy for your teen to exercise by providing transportation and the necessary gear or equipment (including workout clothes). In some cases, the right clothes and shoes might help a shy teen feel comfortable biking or going to the gym.
In addition to a child's age, it's important to consider his or her fitness personality. Personality traits, genetics, and athletic ability combine to influence kids' attitudes toward participation in sports and other physical activities, particularly as they get older.
Which of these three types best describes your child?
1. The nonathlete: This child may lack athletic ability, interest in physical activity, or both.
2. The casual athlete: This child is interested in being active but isn't a star player and is at risk of getting discouraged in a competitive athletic environment.
3. The athlete: This child has athletic ability, is committed to a sport or activity, and likely to ramp up practice time and intensity of competition.
If you understand the concepts of temperament and fitness types, you'll be better able to help your kids find the right activities and get enough exercise — and find enjoyment in physical activity. Some kids want to pursue excellence in a sport, while others may be perfectly happy and fit as casual participants.
The athlete, for instance, will want to be on the basketball team, while the casual athlete may just enjoy shooting hoops in the playground or on the driveway. The nonathlete is likely to need a parent's help and encouragement to get and stay physically active. That's why it's important to encourage kids to remain active even through they aren't top performers.
Whatever their fitness personality, all kids can be physically fit. A parent's positive attitude will help a child who's reluctant to exercise.
Be active yourself and support your kids' interests. If you start this early enough, they'll come to regard activity as a normal — and fun — part of your family's everyday routine.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2014
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