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Pediatrics at HSS

How Much Exercise Do Kids Really Need? - logo image

How Much Exercise Do Kids Really Need?

Kids playing with soccer ball outside

We all know that regular physical activity is essential for good health and fitness. For many young people, though, it’s easier said than done. Although team sports are popular in many schools, surveys show that the majority of young people do not get the exercise they need for optimal health.

Physical activity promotes strong muscles and bones and is good for the heart and lungs. It benefits the brain as well. Regular exercise can boost academic performance and memory and even reduce symptoms of depression in school-age children, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exercise in youth also promotes better health later in life. “Regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence is important for promoting lifelong health and well-being,” says Lisa Ipp, MD, Chief of Pediatric Medicine at HSS. “It reduces risk factors for health conditions such as heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.”

Goal: An hour of physical activity daily

The latest guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that children and teens ages 6 to 17 years old get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Many young people fall short. 

The good news is that any amount of moderate or vigorous physical activity counts toward the 60-minute goal. That includes even a 10-minute bout of exercise. “Young people can benefit substantially from engaging in physical activities that add up to an hour or more each day,” says Melanie Prior, MD, a pediatrician who specializes in the medical care of kids and teens scheduled for surgery at HSS. “This should include aerobic exercises that increase heart rate, as well as age-appropriate activities that will strengthen the muscles and bones.”

How parents can support activities

Adults play an important role in encouraging free play in children and in persuading kids to engage in sustained and structured activity as they grow older, says Joseph Molony, PT, MS, SCS, CSCS, a physical therapist and coordinator of the Young Athlete Program at HSS. “If you put young kids together in an outdoor setting, they tend to become active. Young children love unstructured activities such as running around, riding a bike or climbing monkey bars in a park. Free play is important because it involves all the muscle groups and promotes good motor skills.”

It’s usually a greater challenge to get sedentary teens to be more active. Much of their interaction with friends takes place online via social media or playing video games. It’s up to parents to create opportunities for their child, according to Mr. Molony. “There are likely activities the kid would enjoy doing, and the first step is to identify what they are,” he says. “Older kids are generally more interested in organized exercise or fitness activities they can engage in with friends. So if a teen might like rock climbing, for example, a parent could arrange a weekend outing with friends to a rock climbing facility.” Sometimes, it’s good to start slowly. Even less taxing activities such as miniature golf or bowling are a good start.

What are some strategies to get kids moving?

HSS experts offer additional tips to get kids and teens to be more active:

  • Encourage young people to participate in physical activities that are age-appropriate and enjoyable and offer variety. Urge older kids to go outside and join in with peers playing an unstructured sport, such as basketball.   
  • Stay involved. If your child’s friends come over and they all sit around playing video games on a nice summer day, suggest going to the park, grabbing a Frisbee or playing some basketball.
  • Provide structure and set guidelines. That means sticking to rules limiting screen time and video game play. It’s less confusing for kids if they have structure and know the rules.
  • Set a good example. Children tend to emulate their parents, so if they see you engaging in physical activity, they may be motivated to do the same.
  • Engage in activities you can do together as a family. Bike riding or taking a long walk together provides health benefits for everyone. Walk to the store instead of driving.
  • Motivate older children and teenagers by setting goals and targets and tracking progress. If a teen starts going to the gym, an exercise diary may help with motivation.
  • Give gifts that promote physical activity. For young children, that means balls, jump ropes, and other active toys. For adolescents, it could be a bicycle, skateboard or ice skates.
  • Plan ahead. Make sure your child has a convenient time and place to exercise.
  • Provide a safe environment. Make sure your child's equipment, shoes and clothing are appropriate and that the location for play is safe.
  • Start slowly and don’t overdo it. Encourage your child to try to stay on a schedule, and to stop exercising if feeling achy or very fatigued. Take extra precautions when playing a sport or exercising in hot weather.

Enabling young people to enjoy and reap the benefits of exercise can be done. It ultimately comes down to the right environment, incentives and structure, and promoting an active lifestyle, says Mr. Molony.