Ensuring that your children get regular exercise is important not only for their physical health but also their mental well-being. It can be difficult to motivate children and especially those over 9 to get up and move so what can you do to encourage them to exercise? Why is it so important?
There are guidelines about children and how much exercise they should get every day let alone every week. You’d be forgiven for not knowing about these guidelines as unless you actively look for them they aren’t commonly advertised. When you read the recommendations it is easy to be a little taken aback by the amount of exercise children are required to do in order to maintain a basic level of health. Remember though that with young children hitting the targets is pretty straightforward with most of it easily attainable through a daily visit to the park or trip to the shops on a scooter. The problem arises when your children are not strictly children anymore and are much more verbal about not wanting to go out in favour of screen time.
The NHS guidelines are that children from 5-18 years of age should have a minimum of 60 minutes exercise each day. This can include moderate exercise but should also include vigorous exercise which leaves them out of breath. On three days of the week they need to participate in exercise which strengthens their muscles such as push-ups, running or jumping.
What happens if children don’t get enough exercise?
Failing to reach the recommended levels of exercise can have a devastating impact on children’s health. It is easy to ignore physical changes in children due to lack of exercise and in fact according to a recent study by Change for Life 79% of parents do not recognise that their children are obese. Amongst others a lack of exercise can lead to:
- heart disease
- poor self-esteem
Our increasingly sedentary lifestyle is unnatural – we are built to move. Lipase, an enzyme in the legs which assists with the breakdown of fats, is reduced when you sit down. Calorie burning also slows dramatically and sitting for extended periods of time inhibits the effectiveness of insulin. Our bodies are finely tuned machines which need exercise to be maintained.
Are children exercising enough?
*There have been declines in the amount of exercise children are doing over time. Between 2008 and 2015 only 21% of boys met the recommended 60 minutes of exercise per day and only 16% of girls. In correlation with this decline children’s resting heartbeats have increased by an average of 0.4 beats per minute over the last 30 years. It is fair to surmise that the changes are linked to the rapid prevalence of technology such as mobile phones in the younger generation. It isn’t uncommon to see older children sitting in the park hunched over a phone these days where once they would have been moving.
The information from all sources states that children simply are not exercising enough.
What are the benefits of exercise?
Aside from the obvious physical benefits, a healthy strong heart, strong muscles and lungs, there are other less visible benefits for children. Professor Charlie Foster, who researches for The British Heart Foundation has stated that a recent study ‘revealed a strong link between children who participate in physical activity and improved self-esteem, confidence, attention span and even academic achievements. Active kids are healthy kids, inside and out.’
When it comes to learning, vigorous exercise is important. As more and more is being revealed about the brain a study by the University of British Columbia has found that this type of exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus. This area of the brain is responsible for learning and verbal memory – exercising until you sweat literally increases your brain power.
How can you encourage children to exercise?
This is the tough one. When children can opt for an afternoon spent capturing bad guys in fantastic, faced paced worlds on computers, phones or consoles going for a walk seems like a much less thrilling option. Here are a few idea to help you tackle this:
- Education. Children are much more inclined to exercise if they know why it is important to do so. Teach them how their body works and what happens if it isn’t looked after. Explain how the body is like a super car that starts out perfectly tuned but quickly rusts and breaks down without constant maintenance. This is a perfect time to discuss nutrition too.
- Set an example. It is no good proclaiming the importance of exercise if you then refuse to do it yourself. Whether it is a daily walk or an intensive work out session at the gym children need to see that exercise is normal and necessary. You set an example from the get go when it comes to dental hygiene so why not exercise?
- Praise their attempts. Make a big deal of their achievements even if it is only something as small as a short walk. If they feel good about it then they will want to continue.
- Ask them. What is it they want to try? A team sport, swimming, walking, climbing? Encourage them by letting them drive the activity choice. Not all children like team sports so maybe a martial art will suit them. If lessons are too expensive perhaps try to get a friend involved for a weekly kick about on a field or a group run?
- Relocate screens. Televisions in bedrooms encourage a sedentary lifestyle – it might be necessary to bring screens into the family area of the house where screen time can be monitored.
- Family. Make time for family exercise. This can be a Sunday walk or hike where the whole family unit enjoys an activity together.
- Be the parent. Exercise will set them up for a happy and healthy future. If all else fails then a tougher line may be required – you may have to get them moving and refuse to take no for an answer.
Not everyone is born sporty but there are a variety of activities which can be undertaken without being an Olympic athlete. Children can easily be turned off if they think that they will fail which is why it is important to have a go yourself, lead from the front even if it takes you outside your comfort zone.
Making exercise a part of your children’s life now will help them grow into adults who view daily exercise as natural as brushing their teeth.
*statistics from BHF physical activity statistics 2015 documents.