Exercise is just as important for kids as it is for adults, but unfortunately many children are emulating their parents and getting far less physical activity than they need to stay healthy.
Less than one-third of kids aged 6 to 17 get at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise a day, and the 2010 Shape of the Nation Report from the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education actually recommends one hour of exercise a day for Americans of all ages.
Kids are clearly falling way short of this goal. The report states:
“The reality, of course, is that children and adolescents in the United States are primarily sedentary. Most kids under age 18 spend the majority of their day sitting in classrooms, and a big part of their free time outside of school watching television, playing video games or surfing the Internet.”
Too much sedentary time is one of the forces driving the child obesity epidemic. About one-third of U.S. children aged 2-19 years are now overweight or obese, and childhood diabetes has increased 10-fold in the last 20 years.
If this epidemic is not reversed we will, for the first time in history, see children living shorter lives than their parents. The risks of obesity for children are really that steep. For instance:
- Children who are obese are more than twice as likely to die before the age of 55 than those of a healthy weight.
- Obese teenage women are more likely to die between ages 36-56 than their normal weight peers.
- Women in the moderately obese category as teens elevate their risk of death in adulthood by 50 percent.
- Obese teens more than double their mortality risks compared to their slimmest peers.
Research calculations indicate that by mid-century the growing risk of serious obesity-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and cancer could lower the current average life expectancy by as much as five years.
These are diseases that have no place in a young person’s life, and the good news is that regular exercise can seriously decrease your child’s risk.
Along with helping your child to maintain a healthy weight, regular exercise can also help your kids excel at school and, later, in the workforce.
Keeping kids active is a superb way to increase learning, focus and even test results. At one school, students who took part in a dynamic gym class at the beginning of the day had reading scores that nearly doubled, while math scores increased 20-fold.
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage.
Lab tests on animals have also shown that during exercise their nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors.
One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and has a direct benefit on brain functions, including learning.
A new study published in Neuroscience also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys, a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people too.
Further, exercise provides protective effects to your brain through:
- The production of nerve-protecting compounds
- Greater blood flow to your brain
- Improved development and survival of neurons
- Decreased risk of heart and blood vessel diseases
Physical activity is not only a boon for brain power, it also helps kids who may be restless or hyperactive, or who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Even emotional disturbances can be improved with exercise, as the activity provides an outlet for their energy and reduces the natural inclination of children to “act out.”
No matter your age, exercise can provide enormous benefits for your health, including giving your immune system a major boost.
Exercise improves the circulation of immune cells in your blood. The job of these cells is to neutralize pathogens throughout your body. The better these cells circulate, the more efficient your immune system is at locating and defending against viruses and diseases trying to attack your body.
Your immune system is your first line of defense against everything from minor illnesses like a cold or the flu right up through devastating, life-threatening diseases like cancer. So just by getting regular physical activity, your child will be better able to fight off illnesses ranging from colds and the flu to cancer.
Better still, by instilling the importance of physical activity in your child’s life early on, it’s a habit he or she will likely grow to enjoy and continue throughout adulthood.
It is imperative that you limit your child’s TV, computer and video game time, and replace them with a regular exercise program. Overweight and obese children will need at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, and may benefit from closer to 60 minutes.
Even if your child is not overweight, you should encourage him or her to take part in physically engaging activities after school and on the weekends. There are plenty to choose from, from sports and dance classes to gymnastics, bike riding and playing tag with friends. Allow your child to choose activities that appeal to them, and which are age appropriate.
Unless your child is seriously overweight or obese (in which case he may benefit from seeing a personal trainer who specializes in children), you shouldn’t expect your child to log in 30 minutes on the treadmill or elliptical machine like you do. The trick to getting kids interested in exercise at a young age is to keep it fun, not feeling like a chore.
Encourage your child to engage in activities that are naturally interesting to them, such as playing on the monkey bars, rollerblading, skateboarding, dancing or playing basketball with friends. Allow your kids to exercise in bursts throughout the day — a game of tag here, a bike ride there — so they don’t feel pressured or like they’re being “punished.”
Like adults, kids need variety to their exercise routines, so be sure your child is getting in aerobic, interval training, weight-training, stretching and core-building activities. This may sound daunting, but if your child participates in a gymnastics class, sprints around the backyard after the dog often and rides his bike after school, you’ll be covered.
Interestingly, interval type of exercise is typically what most children will do spontaneously. Animals will also do this. They will run for 50-150 yards or so at high speed and then stop to rest and repeat that throughout the day. This type of high-intensity exertion is what most adults are actually missing from their exercise program.
And remember, it’s imperative that you act as a role model by staying active yourself. If your kids see you embracing exercise in a positive way, they will naturally follow suit. Plus, it’s easy to plan active activities that involve the whole family and double up as fun ways to spend time together. Hiking, bike riding, canoeing, swimming and sports are all great options.
Think of it this way … by taking the time to get your kids interested in exercise now, you’re giving them a gift that will keep them healthy and happy for the rest of their lives.