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When our kids are small, exercising with them is a no-brainer. Babies can be popped into the stroller while you walk or run, and all toddlers seem to do is exercise! When they’re not walking, they’re running. When they’re not jumping, they’re climbing! But exercise for kids is harder to come by as they grow past the toddler years, which is where we come in.
By the time they’re in school, the average American child spends almost half of their day sitting down. Recess has been chopped in school districts across the country, and some schools are even doing away with it entirely.
An increase in obesity among children over the past few decades has pediatricians urging families to prioritize proper nutrition and exercise for kids.
The good news? You don’t have to be a certified physical education teacher or pony up for expensive classes to provide exercise for kids when they need to get all that energy out. With just a little planning, you can get your kids up off the couch and moving like they mean it.
Why is exercise for kids important?
You likely know how important exercise is for your health, but exercise is just as important for kids, if not more.
“Children 2 to 6 years old should spend at least two hours every day participating in free play,” says Daniel Ganjian, MD, a certified public trainer and pediatric obesity specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Free play exercise for kids, rather than going to the gym or using a treadmill, includes running around in the park, swimming, team sports, etc.
“More exercise, especially free play, helps promote better health, burn calories, improve concentration, and many other benefits,” Ganjian says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least one hour of “moderate to vigorous” physical activity for kids 6 and older to help build healthy bones and lean muscles, develop their motor skills, and build strength and endurance.
It can even make them smarter. Sound too good to be true? A study from Georgia Health Sciences University found a correlation between higher IQs and math scores and exercise for children. Researchers in the study selected 171 largely sedentary kids between ages 7 and 11 who were then divided into three groups; one had 20 minutes of exercise a day, another 40 minutes each day, and a third had none at all. Kids’ IQ scores and math abilities were recorded along the way. The groups that exercised saw IQ boosts and better math scores, and these results were more pronounced in the group that exercised the most.
Meanwhile, researchers in the Netherlands have found that exercise while learning can also boost children’s academic achievement. Scientists split second- and third-graders into two groups. One group had traditional lessons while the other had physical activities that coincided with their math and spelling lessons. Any guesses which group had higher scores when the research came to an end two years later? Yup, the kids who exercised.
Of course, planning exercise for kids can simply be a stop-gap measure to save your sanity when they’re bouncing off the walls. There’s no shame in that! After all, there’s nothing like sinking into the couch at 8 p.m. and basking in the quiet because the exhausted kids passed out early.
But exercise isn’t simply good for kids (and you) in the short term. It can help children create lifelong healthy habits.
“The earlier you start, the more likely your children are to continue exercising because they are learning healthy habits,” Ganjian says. “Furthermore, it is a great way for the family to interact and bond.”
So how do you set up exercise for kids that creates those interactions and bonding moments?
How to Make Exercise for Kids Fun
There’s a difference between how most kids approach exercise and how most adults approach the task, says Shannon Philpott-Sanders, author of Screen-Free Fun: 400 Activities for the Whole Family.
“For example, as adults, we focus on long-term goals when it comes to exercise,” she says. “Our end goal with exercise is to improve our health, lose weight, or even clear our minds.”
With kids, on the other hand, doctors like Ganjian say it’s important not to talk about weight (even if it’s a concern), as it can create a slippery slope that sends kids spiraling into an eating disorder.
What’s more, kids need motivation that’s more short-term than long-term. The younger they are, the more they want to know what’s happening in the next few minutes rather than in the next three months.
“In addition, the more you can turn exercise into a game, the more willing and eager kids are to get moving,” Philpott-Sanders says. “They may not even see the activity as a form of exercise; instead, they view it as a way to ‘play’ with others.”
As with any workout, safety is important when you’re planning exercise for kids.
“Areas should be well cushioned and away from sharp objects since toddlers may fall,” says Joseph Geskey, MD, a pediatrician and the vice president of medical affairs at OhioHealth Doctors Hospital. “As children age, follow the instructions of manufacturers’ recommendations around playground equipment, and ensure that once children are riding bikes, they should be wearing helmets, etc. By parents modeling this behavior—particularly around wearing helmets while biking—this becomes an ingrained habit that children naturally do.”
Exercise for Kids That Moms Love Too
You know your child best, so you’ll know what kinds of exercises they’re most likely to enjoy, but here are some ideas that might get them (and you) up and moving:
Can you walk like a penguin? Hop like a frog? Geskey says that challenging your kids to imitate animal movements can be great exercise. “Essentially, anything that gets children moving and is fun sets the appropriate example.”
Remember playing double Dutch on the playground? This is one exercise for kids that is just as fun today as it was when you did it. Grab a jump rope and show off your best moves. “This is an exceptional way to get the heart rate up and use just about every muscle in the body,” Philpott-Sanders says.
To encourage them to keep at it longer, try challenging the kids to a contest. Have two kids sit on the ground with the rope stretched between them, and have them move the rope like a snake while a third child jumps back and forth, trying not to “step on the snake.” Older kids can can incorporate other challenges such as trying to answer math questions while jumping rope.
No matter the weather, dancing is the perfect exercise for kids. Even when it’s raining, you can set things up in your living room to get their blood pumping and work their whole bodies. Tanya Cohen, owner of the Janice Center, an arts learning facility in upstate New York, says she starts small with kids, teaching them “moves” or “combos.” From there she starts to build a routine that her dancers can accomplish by putting together the pieces. “I also think it’s important to play dance games to reaffirm what I’ve taught,” she says. Focusing on the fun keeps her young dancers engaged.
It’s a simple game, but don’t let the fact that it’s common fool you into thinking it’s not a good exercise for kids. Although running around a track might be deemed “boring” by kids, Philpott-Sanders says tag gives them the same running workout with a twist that’s more kid-friendly. To vary the exercise, try different versions such as playing Red Rover or flashlight tag.
Yoga has been skyrocketing in popularity among kids with 1.7 million children in the United States downward dogging and trying out their tree poses. The health benefits for adults are hard to beat, but it turns out yoga brings a lot to the table for kids too. Researchers have found it may help reduce anxiety in adolescents, improve classroom behavior, and even improve aerobic capacity. If you’re not a yoga pro yourself, don’t worry: yoga for kids can be very simple. Grab them a cute mat, and if you need more assistance, check out Cosmic Kids Yoga videos on YouTube!
If you’re still stumped on how to plan exercise for kids that they’ll love, check with your local community center or even your school district. Team sports, dance classes, and even swimming lessons can help get them used to moving their bodies and learning to love the way it feels to exercise.