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Kids and Exercise

When most adults think about exercise, they imagine working out in the gym, running on a treadmill, or lifting weights.

But for kids, exercise means playing and being physically active. Kids exercise when they have gym class at school, during recess, at dance class or soccer practice, while riding bikes, or when playing tag.

The Many Benefits of Exercise

Everyone can benefit from regular exercise. Kids who are active will:

Besides enjoying the health benefits of regular exercise, kids who are physically fit sleep better. They're also better able to handle physical and emotional challenges — from running to catch a bus to studying for a test.

The Three Elements of Fitness

If you've ever watched kids on a playground, you've seen the three elements of fitness in action when they:

  1. run away from the kid who's "it" (endurance)
  2. cross the monkey bars (strength)
  3. bend down to tie their shoes (flexibility)

Parents should encourage their kids to do a variety of activities so that they can work on all three elements.

Endurance develops when kids regularly get aerobic activity. During aerobic exercise, the heart beats faster and a person breathes harder. When done regularly and for extended periods of time, aerobic activity strengthens the heart and improves the body's ability to deliver oxygen to all its cells.

Aerobic exercise can be fun for both adults and kids. Examples of aerobic activities include:

  • basketball
  • bicycling
  • ice skating
  • inline skating
  • soccer
  • swimming
  • tennis
  • walking
  • jogging
  • running

Improving strength doesn't have to mean lifting weights. Although some kids benefit from weightlifting, it should be done under the supervision of an experienced adult. Most kids don't need a weight-training program to be strong. Push-ups, stomach crunches, pull-ups, and other exercises help tone and strengthen muscles. Kids also use strength activities during play when they climb, do a handstand, or wrestle.

Stretching exercises help improve flexibility, allowing muscles and joints to bend and move easily through their full range of motion. Kids get chances every day to stretch when reach for a toy just out of reach, practice a split, or do a cartwheel.

The Sedentary Problem

Being overweight or obese in childhood has become a serious problem. Many things add to this epidemic, but a big part of it is that kids are becoming more sedentary. In other words, they're sitting around a lot more than they used to.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8- to 18-year-olds watch about 4½ hours of television a day over 7½ hours on all screen media combined (TV, videos, and DVDs, computer and video games). Too much screen time and not enough physical activity add to the problem of childhood obesity.

One of the best ways to get kids to be more active is to limit the amount of time spent in sedentary activities, especially watching TV or playing video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends parents:

  • discourage screen time in kids under age 2
  • limit screen time in kids older than 2 to less than 1-2 hours a day of entertainment programming

How Much Exercise Is Enough?

Parents should make sure that their kids get enough exercise. So, how much is enough? Kids and teens should get 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) offers these activity guidelines for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers:


Minimum Daily Activity



No specific requirements

Physical activity should encourage motor development


1½ hours

30 minutes planned physical activity AND 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)


2 hours

60 minutes planned physical activity AND 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)

School age

1 hour or more

Break up into bouts of 15 minutes or more

Infants and young children should not be inactive for prolonged periods of time — no more than 1 hour unless they're sleeping. And school-age children should not be inactive for periods longer than 2 hours.

Raising Fit Kids

Combining regular physical activity with a healthy diet is the key to a healthy lifestyle.

Here are some tips for raising fit kids:

  • Help your kids participate in a variety of age-appropriate activities.
  • Establish a regular schedule for physical activity.
  • Incorporate activity into daily routines, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Embrace a healthier lifestyle yourself, so you'll be a positive role model for your family.
  • Keep it fun, so you can count on your kids to come back for more.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2015