Fitness often feels like an obligation for adults, but it shouldn’t for kids. With a wide array of fun activities available to get young bodies moving, there’s no excuse for children not to find an exercise outlet they love. Yet excuses can mount up — “I’m not a good (swimmer, soccer player, runner)” . . . “I’m tired” . . . “I have to do homework.”
As parents, we need to get them off the couch and into a physical activity that will engage their imagination and inspire them to stay fit in an era when, according to the latest stats from the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of American kids are obese or overweight.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise for all kids, toddlers to teenagers. Those 60 minutes can be broken up into smaller segments, but for younger kids about half of the time should be unstructured play — think dancing in the basement or running around outside — with the other half performed as a more structured activity.
“Look for an activity that’s going to get your heart rate to increase,” says Elizabeth Parks Prout, MD, a pediatrician with a nutrition specialty at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Ideally, exercise should deliver three things:
The aforementioned cardio endurance (built up through running, jumping rope, even hula-hooping)
Strength and coordination (gained on gymnastic apparatus and monkey bars)
Flexibility (ballet, yoga), especially important for growing bodies
Keep in mind that kids who are exercising to reach a weight loss goal should not necessarily work at a higher intensity or for longer periods of time. Start small and build in length and intensity — “Anything to get moving and burn calories,” says Kathleen O’Brien, MD, medical director of the Sports Medicine Program at Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital in Wilmington, DE. “It all adds up.”
Exercise your kids' fitness options
When choosing a physical activity, “First figure out what the child likes to do, then build around that,” says Dr. O’Brien. Keep in mind that some kids thrive in the camaraderie of team sports while others prefer individual pursuits. “If they enjoy what they’re doing, parents don’t have a tough time bringing them into class,” says Mary DeStolfo, co-owner of DeStolfo’s Premier Martial Arts in Conshohocken, PA.
Everything is on the table to try, says Kristie Stuart, director of the Little Gym of Washington Township, NJ — just make sure there is a trained instructor for the class. Mix up activities from time to time, to prevent overuse injuries and ensure that your kids are literally flexing different muscles. In fact, Dr. O’Brien discourages student athletes from playing the same sport continuously throughout the year.
Family fitness values
“Fitness is a family value,” says Harvey Howard, owner of My Gym Children’s Fitness Center in Cherry Hill, NJ. Experts agree that it’s most effective for parents to set a good fitness example. That’s why Amanda Pollard, owner of Danceworks in New Castle, DE schedules both child and adult classes at familyfriendly times all week long.
Amy Cudd of Downingtown, PA is an avid runner and Pilates instructor. Because fitness is important in her family (her husband is a triathlete), she started taking her daughter to classes at the Lionville My Gym when Emma was just eight months old. “We wanted her to think of it as a way of life, not a chore,” says Cudd. After nearly three years of classes, “It’s made her feel more capable.”
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.