Why is exercise so important for young children?

toddleryogaYoung children love to move around. They have an over-abundance of energy. They are active. They are moving, running, jumping, wiggling almost all of the time. Why is it so important to harness this power, to reinforce their innate drive to move throughout their lifetime? Why is exercise important for young children?

Kids who engage in regular exercise, who are physically fit, develop life-long habits that benefit their health the rest of their lives.

Kids who are active will get:

  • Direct health benefits
    • have stronger muscles and bones
    • flexible joints, rhythm and balance and coordination are improved
    • improved cardiorespiratory capacity that enhances their endurance
    • have a leaner body because exercise helps control body fat
    • be less likely to become overweight
    • decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
    • lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels
    • sleep better
  • Social-emotional benefits
    • have a better outlook on life
    • Better able to handle physical and emotional challenges — from running to catch a bus to studying for a test.
    • Improved self-perception –perceive that they can function more competently when playing movement games.
    • Improved self-esteem and confidence
    • gain practice and social skills interacting with peers that they play motion games
    • the will to take risks, and be more willing to challenge themselves
  • Cognitive and thinking skills
    • Improved listening skills, attention span, ability to focus and follow directions

There are three main elements of fitness. Caregivers should encourage their kids to do a variety of activities so that they can work on all three aspects.

  1. Endurance — like playing a game of tag
  2. Strength – when hanging with hands/arms and crossing the monkey bars
  3. Flexibility— sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning forward, playing a game

Endurance

Most children attain fitness and endurance levels by being very active in other parts of their lives.
Endurance consists of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Aerobic activities are ones where the body has time to supply energy by the blood and oxygen coming to the working muscles. Examples are a long run or a fully played game.  Anaerobic activities involve the bodies’ muscles working with their limited stored energy without being able to replenish or get more. This is like a short sprint. Anaerobic time duration is about 90 seconds, after which aerobic capacity works and then fully takes over at about 3 minutes.

Endurance develops when kids regularly get aerobic activity. The muscles of the body can continually function over a sustained period. The longer the sprint or the game or activity, the more the body moves using aerobic power. The body can be trained to tolerate extended periods of aerobic exercise.

During aerobic exercise, the heart beats faster, and a person breathes harder. When regularly engaged in aerobic exercises 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 these and much more:

  • basketball
  • bicycling
  • ice skating
  • inline skating
  • roller skating, inline skating
  • soccer
  • swimming
  • tennis
  • walking
  • jogging
  • running
  • cross country skiing
  • cross country running

Endurance training for kids can be incorporated into every part of an exercise session. Variety of activities is a great weapon in improving kids fitness.  Keep them guessing.  Keep it fresh. And embed endurance training into games. Fitness activities are the basis for all training sessions.

Strength

Kids who are strong look better and feel great!

Strength training, or resistance training, is a form of physical conditioning used to increase the ability to resist force. By increasing muscle strength, strength training can improve sports performance in young athletes. Many of these movements are what children do when they play and get regular physical exercise. Your child can do many strength training exercises with his or her body weight. Start young!

Improving strength doesn’t have to mean lifting weights. Don’t confuse strength in kids, or gaining strength, with weightlifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting. Although some children benefit from weightlifting, it should be done under the supervision of an experienced adult when they are older. Kids don’t need a weight-training program to be strong. For children, light resistance and controlled movements are best — with a particular emphasis on proper technique and safety.

(Weight-lifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting are competitive activities, with participants vying to lift heavier weights or build bigger muscles than those of other athletes. This can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons and areas of cartilage that haven’t yet turned to bone (growth plates) — especially when proper technique is sacrificed for lifting larger amounts of weight.)

Examples of activities that build strength in young children are:

  • Push-ups, (develops in infants as they slide along the floor in “combat crawl” and begin to push to their hands and knees)
  • Stomach crunches, ( row, row, row your boat, facing a partner, holding hands and going back to the floor and then sitting upright)
  • Pull-ups, (reaching for the rung on the swing set)
  • Swimming against the resistance of turbulence of the water
  • Riding a toy with feet on the ground, peddling, bicycling, skating, for lower extremity strength
  • Climbing, hanging and hand walking along monkey bars, upper extremity strength
  • Walking on hands in play, bear walking on all 4’s, playing wheelbarrow
  • Climbing at first on low furniture

Kids use strength activities during play when they climb, do a handstand, or wrestle. Strengthening muscles and bones is an integral part of the most exercise and gross motor play.

Flexibility

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 they reach for a toy just out of reach, practice a split, or do a cartwheel.

Being flexible is important for so many reasons:

  • Stretching can prevent injuries.
  • Stretching helps kids’ bodies recover after exercise.
  • Stretching can prepare bodies for a good performance in a game
  • Stretching increases blood flow to the muscles
  • Stretching improves range of motion
  • Stretching improves body temperature control
  • Stretching helps kids’ bodies become and remain flexible so they can get the most from the exercise in which they are participating
  • Flexible bodies are agiler and perform better.
  • Stretching reduces muscle tension and feels good!Why start young?

“The American Council on Exercise notes that from about age 6, when children begin regularly sitting at a desk, the hamstrings are forced into a tight, shortened position for many hours a day. As children get older, spending long hours hunched in front of the TV or computer compounds the problem, leading to tightness in the legs, back, neck and shoulders. The Nationwide Children’s Hospital website adds that muscles tend to be tight in the pre-teen and early teen years when children experience short periods of rapid growth. During this phase of physical development when bones grow quickly, and muscles have not yet adjusted to them, poorer flexibility may become a problem.”

Children need to learn to stretch, early, when they are young, to protect them as they age.
Examples of simple stretches can include integrating stretching into play and also performing exercises as part of a regular physical activity routine.

Stretching is playful. Children can stretch while:

  • Dancing
  • Painting and doing other art projects
  • Twisting with feet and hands on homemade tape or chalk on the floor, similar to the game, Twister
  • Making arm circles, large and small
  • Lunges
  • Yoga moves, such as child’s pose, twists, cat and cow, downward dog,
  • Shoulder stretches, scapula in the back and pects in the front, triceps stretch
  • Head and neck stretch
  • Quadriceps stretch, standing
  • Legs in butterfly position, sitting on floor, inner thigh stretch
  • Calf or hamstring, stretch, stand, long sit or lie on back, stretching hamstring
  • Heel stretch, stand on the edge of step, or on an incline, stretch back of heels

Summary: TIPS for Raising Kids who are Fit

Participating in regular physical activity (also combined with a healthy diet) is the key to a healthy lifestyle. Endurance, strength, and flexibility are a part of fun physical activities. To have this in