As adults, we know that exercise is important to our health. Lack of exercise can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease and stroke. Because children are naturally more active than adults, it’s easy to overlook the fact that physical activity is just as important for their health, and something we need to promote.
Matthew Elias, MD, an attending cardiologist in the Cardiac Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), talks about the link between exercise and children’s heart health, and what we can do as parents to encourage our children to get the physical activity they need.
Exercise: the best medicine
“The benefits of exercise to children are clear,” Dr. Elias explains. “It’s the best medicine available to improve heart health. Exercise strengthens the heart so it doesn’t have to work as hard. And it has lots of other positive side effects. Kids who are physically active get better sleep. They have more energy and better concentration. Physical activity decreases children’s stress and improves their self-confidence. It’s also true that healthy habits begun in childhood can last a lifetime.”
Dr. Elias cites the American Heart Association recommendation that children of all ages spend at least 60 minutes every day in moderate to vigorous physical activity. And he says parents can’t assume their kids will get that in school, at gym or recess.
Encouraging healthy habits in kids
So, how can you encourage your children to get that healthy level of physical activity?
“It should be as fun as possible,” says Dr. Elias. “You don’t want it to be forced.” As adults, we have the idea of exercise as a “should-do” activity. That won’t work with kids. “Play” is a better word than “exercise” when you nudge your kids into physical activity, especially younger kids.
Here are some ideas from Dr. Elias and Rachel DeHaven, an exercise physiologist with CHOP’s Healthy Weight Program:
- Get your kids outside when they first get home from school. It’s a great time to be out and active — riding bikes, shooting baskets, jumping rope or playing tag with friends.
- Be active together. Go for a bike ride with your child. Kick a ball around. Explore a nearby park. Kids pay close attention to how the adults in their lives act. If you enjoy activities together, you’re motivating your children by demonstrating that it’s fun for you, too.
- Make good use of nearby playgrounds. They are designed to encourage physical activity in ways kids love. Try out different playgrounds on different days.
- Coordinate with other parents so your child can be out and active with friends. Some physical activities are simply more fun with friends.
- Help your child find a sport they enjoy, and look for opportunities for organized practice and training. Does your child love gymnastics, tennis, basketball, soccer, field hockey, running, dancing or one of the martial arts? Seek out a league, team or gym where they can get expert instruction and connect with others who enjoy the same activities.
- Make opportunities for physical activity indoors. If your child enjoys dancing, clear space and put some music on. For an older child, consider installing a pull-up bar in a doorway or having weights and a mat where it’s easy for your child to use them.
- Limit sitting screen time, especially at times of day when it’s light outside and when the weather is good. TV and online games are enticing to children and adolescents, and once they start it’s hard for them to pull away. If you allow them at all during the week, it should only be after time for physical play and after the homework is done.
- Try active games using the Wii or Xbox Kinect such as Just Dance, Wipe Out, Zumba for Kids, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, or Fruit Ninja. There are also active apps for all ages (some free). For younger kids, try NFL Play 60, Ninja Fitness, Yuvi, or Dungeon Runner: Fitness Quest. For teens, try Nike Training Club, Sworkit Lite, Couch to 5K, or Zombies, Run!
“The key is to encourage physical activity that your kids enjoy,” says Dr. Elias. “They should see it as play, not as forced exercise. It should be a part of their day they look forward to. When kids have active time every day, they feel better. They’re calmer. They sleep better. Their thinking is sharper. And their hearts are healthier.”