In the new exercise guidelines for Americans, children get their own section. We don’t always think about how much our kids move around, but we probably should. More exercise means better sleep and a better mood, not to mention setting kids up for a healthier adulthood.
Kids age 6 and up should be active for about an hour a day. That doesn’t have to be a structured sports practice or gym class, though: recess counts, and so does active play like goofing around on the playground or having a snowball fight. Even short bouts of exercise count, so it’s fine to add up all the movement kids get in a day.
As kids approach adolescence, they tend to slow down and exercise less. Sure, some might get plenty of exercise time as part of sports teams or classes, but otherwise they start falling into the same habits as you and me: sitting at a desk all day, loafing on the couch in the evening.
Kids from age 3 to 5 should be active throughout the day. The new guidelines suggest three hours. That sounds like a lot until you turn off the TV and take the iPad away, and realise that little kids gravitate toward crawling and jumping all over the place as they play with their toys.
The new guidelines don’t include babies, but the Society of Health and Physical Educators has some suggestions. Infants should interact with their caregivers in a variety of settings (take that kid for a walk!) and should have safe places to move around.
So it’s good to put the kid in a baby-proofed space with some toys, for example, even if they’re perfectly happy strapped into a swing or bouncer. And give them opportunities to work on whatever actions are developmentally appropriate: for example, tummy time for little ones who are working on holding their head up, and rolling.
Vigorous Aerobic Exercise
As a grown-up, I know when I’m doing easy exercise (walking to the store) versus vigorous exercise (running intervals at the track). Kids also need a mix of moderate and vigorous exercise, and the guidelines suggest that if you can chat easily while you do it, it’s not vigorous.
At least three days a week (which can be part of the daily 60 minutes), kids age 6 and up should do vigorous exercise such as...
Preschoolers: running games like tag, swimming, riding a bike or trike, dancing
School aged kids: any of the above (at a level that feels hard enough), plus running, jumping rope, skiing, and sports like soccer or martial arts
Teenagers: same as school aged kids, although their preferred sports may differ
Bone Strengthening Exercise
Most of our bone mass is formed while we’re teenagers, so exercise that strengthens the bones is especially important. Fortunately, that just means exercise where we support our own weight, like standing rather than sitting. Bone grows stronger with (safe) impact, like running, skipping, and jumping. Kids 6 and up should do bone strengthening exercises three days per week, as part of their 60 minutes.
Here are a few age-appropriate suggestions:
Preschoolers: hopping, skipping, running, gymnastics
School aged kids: all of the above, including jumping rope, plus sports that involve quick changes of direction (like soccer)
Teenagers: running, jumping rope, and more of those soccer-type sports
Muscle Strengthening Exercise
It’s important to get stronger (again, what kids build now will help them throughout their life), so strength training is as important for kids as it is for us. Kids 6 and up should do some form of muscle strengthening three days per week, again as part of their 60 minutes.
Here are some suggestions:
Preschoolers: climbing on playground equipment, gymnastics, games like tug-of-war
School aged kids: any of the above, plus climbing trees or ropes, doing strength-focused yoga, or actual strength training with bodyweight or resistance bands
Teenagers: any of the above, plus workouts with weight machines or free weights