In today’s society, a child is more likely to spend his/her free time sitting at a computer or using a handheld device, rather than engaging in physical activity. It is important that we teach our children early on how to lead healthy and active lives. As often as we hear how important it is for adults to engage in daily physical activity, it is even more important for kids who are in the midst of their growth and development. Physical activity is important for all children regardless of ability level.
The US Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that children should be active for at least 60 minutes per day, 5 days per week. However, children have different abilities, interests, and skills. Special considerations for children with musculoskeletal or neurological conditions may include seizures, cardiac abnormalities, decreased bone density and loose ligaments. It is important to consult with your child’s physician or physical therapist prior to beginning an exercise program to determine the activities that are best for your child. It is also important to choose activities that are fun and motivating for your child. Finding ways to create and achieve goals help to keep children engaged and eager to participate.
When doing physical activity, it should include moderate intensity aerobic exercise, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening. These types of exercises work to support the whole body as one system. It is important to strengthen not only the movement muscles, but also the heart muscle and its counterparts. A strong heart, diaphragm and lungs can more efficiently provide blood and move oxygen and nutrients to fuel working muscles. Strong bones and muscles support posture and protect joints.
Exercise does not need to be continuous. It can be broken down into smaller blocks of time (for example four, fifteen minute workouts per day). You can monitor activity level by using the TALK TEST. If your child can converse with you, they are exercising at a manageable intensity level. If their speech starts to break, slow, or if they experience discomfort, decrease the demands of the activity.
The following are some fun ways to incorporate physical activity and exercise into play time:
Cardiovascular/Aerobic Exercises (increase heart and breathing rates)
A guaranteed way to increase your child’s cardiovascular activity is to get a little silly with them. Any activity that gets your child moving faster and laughing more will increase their heart rate and ultimately improve their health.
Running/Walking/Wheeling: Hold relay races or shuttle runs. Have your child and a partner line up on opposite sides of the room. Take turns moving back and forth passing a baton or a bean bag. Get creative with how they get from point A to point B. Try moving like a snake in the grass, galloping like a horse, or spinning like a top. Choose movements that support your child’s abilities whether he or she uses a wheelchair, a walker, or no assistive device at all. Let your child choose their favorite way of moving. You will be surprised at how creative they may be!
Dancing: Never underestimate the power of music! Choose tunes that are upbeat and motivating. Crank up the volume and let your child’s great inner being out. At HSS, we often host dance parties during therapy sessions. Dance improves muscle strength and flexibility, gets the heart pumping, relieves stress and is a great social activity.
Blowing and Popping Bubbles: Blowing bubbles is a great activity to improve diaphragmatic and breathing control. Popping bubbles is a way to get arms and legs moving. One way to increase the speed and number of bubbles is to take a large, multi-holed bubble wand and hold it in front of a fan. Watch your child have a blast in a storm of bubbles, or better yet, join them and start popping!
Strengthening Exercises (build bigger muscle)
Sit to stand: A whoopee cushion is a fantastic motivator! Place one on a seat or a bunch on a line of chairs. Have your child stand up and sit down to strengthen their thigh and buttock muscles, not to mention their abdominal muscles from all the laughter.
Tug of War: Sitting or standing, tug of war works the arm, shoulder, and core muscles and is a nice team building activity.
Ball Toss: Whether scooping a ball up from the floor or tossing it high in the air, ball play can incorporate many different muscles. Vary the weight of the ball based on your child’s abilities. They may use anything from a balloon to a medicine ball as long as they have appropriate supervision.
Flexibility Exercises (lengthen muscles)
Yoga is a wonderful way to improve flexibility, strength, and respiratory control. Most poses can be modified based on your child’s abilities. Yoga is a nice way to unwind at the end of the day and is a perfect family activity.
There are many programs that support and/or provide equipment to meet the needs of a child who wants to participate in sports. You can start by checking out the web sites for Disabled Sports USA, The Alliance for Technology Access, and the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability.
Maureen Suhr is a doctor of physical therapy and board certified pediatric specialist. She is assistant manager of the Hospital for Special Surgery Rehabilitation Network.