It’s a modern parenting dilemma playing out in homes across the country: how to motivate children to be more physically active without making it another chore or risking injury.
Whether it’s because of school demands, being homebound, or the simple allure of screen time, kids are spending more time sitting in front of their laptops, phones, and televisions. In spite of the challenges, getting them moving has lifetime benefits that far outweigh any risks. Children and adolescents who exercise regularly tend to have stronger bones and muscles and lower body fat, which reduces their risk of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Kids who are physically active also have lower levels of anxiety and depression and higher levels of self-esteem. Regular physical activity is even associated with higher grade point averages and standardized test scores.
But not all young people have the time or inclination to participate in organized sports, and they have different needs, depending on their age and developmental level. So it’s important for parents to provide opportunities for kids to be active, to choose developmentally appropriate activities for their age, and to keep the focus on fun.
“‘Developmentally appropriate’ refers to the kinds of activities that children can reasonably participate in based on their physical, mental, and emotional stage of development,” says Cordelia W. Carter, sports health specialist and co-director of the Center for Young Athletes. “For example, all kids are able to do some form of weight training. But by and large, for the first decade or so of their lives, they are going to be using their own body weight to build strength. So that’s going to be bridges, planks, yoga moves, or even biceps curls and some of what we think of as traditional weightlifting—only without the barbells and other heavy equipment.”
Another example of how sports participation can be tailored to a child’s developmental level can be seen on the soccer field. “While younger children can be introduced to some of the skills relating to the game, like running, dribbling, and kicking, they may not yet be able to participate in the lengthy, highly structured practice sessions designed for older children and adolescents,” Dr. Carter says.
One of the best ways to get kids moving is by incorporating physical activity into their daily routine. Babies, toddlers, and children 5 years and younger should engage in active play throughout the day for a total of 3 hours. Children 6 years or older should engage in at least 1 hour of physical activity every day.
Here are some age-appropriate ways to fit exercise into your child’s day while keeping them safe.
Activities for Babies and Toddlers
Even babies can be physically active. Crawling, reaching, grasping, rolling over, and pushing off the floor are all activities that help babies develop their motor skills and strengthen their hearts, lungs, and muscles.
Toddlers can tackle energetic exercises, such as jumping jacks, skipping rope, or dancing. They can also kick a soccer ball, throw a baseball back and forth, shoot some hoops, or play hopscotch. Exercise videos on YouTube, such as 10 Simple Toddler Exercises, are ideal for families who live in apartments and want to avoid bothering the neighbors with too much jumping.
Keep your little ones safe by supervising their activities at all times. Clear areas so your baby can crawl around safely. Ensure heavy equipment, such as dumbbells and kettlebells, are stored out of reach. “While we want everybody to be physically active, we want to make sure that it’s done safely,” Dr. Carter says.
Activities for Children Ages 5 and Older
As children get a little older, you can encourage more structured physical activity. Yoga is an excellent way to stay active while stretching, strengthening the core and limbs, and even learning. Cosmic Kids Yoga’s Saturday Morning Yoga! combines family-friendly poses with the story of Alice in Wonderland, engaging both body and mind. Similarly, Smile and Learn’s Yoga for Children features aquatic animal poses demonstrated by an animated turtle, crab, and starfish.
Kids this age can also get the blood pumping with some cardio. POPSUGAR Fitness’s channel features a family-friendly workout that encourages the whole family to get active. Keep things interesting by combining cardio and dancing with this kid-led Zumba kids routine on GoNoodle’s channel.
“A great way to keep young children engaged and interested in being physically active is to exercise as a family and to make it fun,” says Dr. Carter. “One thing I’ve done at home is to have dance parties where we play follow the leader so we can practice different skills. You can take turns deciding what moves the rest of the group has to do. This type of freeform play is ideal because kids of all ages can do it. Dance parties have the additional benefit of introducing kids to music, which in itself is a natural mood elevator.”
Make sure to supervise all physical activity, particularly if your child is doing yoga or a cardio workout so you can help correct their form and prevent sprains, strains, or other injuries. If an older child is using exercise equipment, such as light weights or resistance bands, make sure they aren’t too heavy to avoid injuries, including fractures or lacerations.
Activities for Preteens and Teens
Preteens and teens have plenty of options to stay physically active. One way they can make it more social and stay motivated is by setting up virtual training sessions with their friends. They can challenge and cheer one another on as they do anything from strength training to cardio.
Older kids who prefer solo workouts can head online for a plethora of videos to add variety and alleviate boredom. The Body Coach TV YouTube channel features a series of daily PE with Joe videos that are especially engaging for older kids and teenagers. Fitness expert Joanna Soh features several workout videos on her YouTube channel, including this 10-Minute Workout for Teenagers.
To prevent overuse injuries, kids should take rest days and avoid doing the same exact routine every single day. “I have one teenage patient who had a video visit recently for a hamstring injury that she got because she’s been running every day,” Dr. Carter says. “It’s important to remember that you need rest days, but you also need to do different activities, like yoga or cycling, as part of a training routine.”
Kids who are returning to a sport after a break should spend time on core strength and endurance training to help them avoid injuries, such as anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. The FIFA Medical Network’s FIFA11+ Kids program combines flexibility and proprioceptive training—the awareness of the body’s position and movement—to help kids avoid sport-related injuries. “This type of program is a good way to prepare for a new season and to remain injury-free throughout it,” Dr. Carter says.
Exercise Advice for All Ages
Exercise can seem like a chore, especially for kids who are also juggling schoolwork. One way to get your children to put down their smartphones or step away from their video game is to set up a schedule and stick to it. Alternate physical activity, study, and rest to avoid monotony. Some kids may feel overwhelmed by a consecutive hour’s worth of physical activity, so break up the hour in intervals of 10 or 20 minutes throughout the day. Having consistency and structure helps to reinforce healthier habits.
And don’t forget to get up and stretch often throughout the day. “Back pain and knee pain tend to go hand in hand with growth spurts as joint-spanning major muscle groups catch up with rapidly elongating bones. This may be compounded by long periods of sitting and inactivity. Working intermittent stretching into the daily routine may help with tightness and soreness,” Dr. Carter says.
“My tips for staying physically active at all ages are to make exercise a habit, to vary your exercise routine, to exercise with a buddy, and—most important—to make it fun,” she says.