Help Kids Develop Healthy Exercise Habits at Every Age

O Stages Of Fitness Infant

Have you ever wondered what your child can accomplish physically at certain stages in his or her childhood? Regular physical activity plays a vital role for all children ? from the pre-K to the teen years. But how much physical activity is too much? Here are some simple, yet practical tips for helping your child grow into a physically fit and healthy adult.

Stages and Ages of Physical Activities

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education, based in Reston, Va., recommends school-aged children spend at least 60 minutes a day involved in some form of structured physical activity, with at least 60 minutes a day (up to several hours) of unstructured physical activities.

Before your child begins any kind of physical activity or recreational sport at any age, it’s always a good idea to speak with your primary care provider to discuss any concerns you may have.

Newborn to Preschool: Speedy Transitionso-stages-of-fitness-toddler.jpg

From early infancy through the preschool stage, your child’s physical growth and motor development occur at their most rapid pace. Families can play an important part in helping young children develop these vital motor skills that will serve as steppingstones for future motor adeptness.

Pedaling ride-on or push toys, for example, not only helps facilitate your little one’s balance and coordination skills, it also provides him with an expansive outlet for his growing imagination, since he can imitate mom, dad and other adults.

Leading by example, most especially at this tender age, is essential, explains Dr. Heath C. Thornton, M.D., assistant professor of the Department of Family and Community Medicine and Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Children are “much more likely to maintain and/or develop good habits of regular physical activity when it is part of their family’s dynamics,” he says.

At this stage of your child’s development, ensure that your preschooler’s active time remains enjoyable. With strong motivation on your part, your child will follow along on the path of your strong foundation.

Shannon Miller, Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast and the only female member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, established The Shannon Miller Foundation to help combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity cases diagnosed across the nation. During an interview with Carolina Parent, she suggested numerous age-appropriate, fun activities for preschool-aged children.

“Especially for younger ones, for example, think about recess activities: something as simple as playing tag or seeing who can do the most jumping jacks,” she says. “Integrate light rhythmic aerobic exercises and calisthenics  — power skips, high knee jumps, dancing — with some of your child’s favorite songs to pique their imagination. At this point, it’s no longer exercise, as it’s now a dance party!”

Ages 5-10: Social Settings

o-tips-keep-your-kids-healthy.jpgDuring the first few years of this age group, children are still attempting to become more proficient with basic motor/physical skills, which can include jumping, kicking and catching a ball.

“A common rule of thumb at this stage before your child begins any kind of organized sports or specific exercise training, is waiting until the child is able to understand and follow instructions specific to that particular activity,” Thornton explains.

Keeping physical activities and exercising fun is crucial at this stage. When a child discovers that an activity is fun, she’ll start to do it a lot, learn to devote more time to it and, most importantly, begin to develop a sense of self-esteem and accomplishment when she sees that she is becoming more proficient at her pursuit. Help your child develop and improve muscle/bone strength and endurance skills by teaching her to do simple pushups and stretching exercises.

Parents can also consider introducing their child to organized team sports such as soccer and baseball at this stage. Just be mindful of how much your child can handle on a physical and mental level. For instance, younger children sometimes are not emotionally ready to handle the pressures of competitive sports. If this is the case, find appropriate activities that help instill the importance of teamwork and being a good sport.

“Families should look into youth recreational sports teams and community programs to investigate what activities may be a good fit for their children,” Miller says. “Being social is a great motivator for exercise.”

Does your 7-year-old son lean more toward independent activities, or does your 8-year-old daughter thrive in group settings? Knowing the way your child socially gravitates can play a critical role when you are looking for the right recreational sports activity or league. “Parents should encourage their kids to take up activities that spark their interest,” Miller says. “As a mom, I think it’s important that we inspire our children to discover their own individual physical talents and help them build a strong sense of self and personal achievement with sports and exercise.”

Ages 12 and Older: Building Strength

Recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., paint an alarming picture. Nearly half of children ages 12-21 are not physically active on a regular basis, and an estimated 14 percent of children in this age range report no recent physical activity at all. Inactivity rates are more commonly reported among girls (14 percent) than boys (7 percent). Most striking in the CDC report is the finding that participation in all forms of physical activity starts to rapidly decline as a child ages.

“Inactivity causes several problems, the most alarming of which is the rising incidence of adult metabolic diseases in adolescents,” says Cameron L. Martz, president of Form Fitness in Raleigh. He emphasizes that we shouldn’t blame children for this because “they lead the lives that we set for them as parents. This isn’t to blame parents for the problem, either, but parents are definitely the source of the answer we need to solve this. Just like for inactive adults, exercise must become a priority for inactive kids in order to make this happen.”

Activities for teenagers that can help them explore their physical abilities range from competitive sports to supplemental weight training programs.

“As an Olympic gymnast, I understand the importance placed on muscle-building activities, although this doesn’t always need to be done through heavy weights,” Miller says. “In gymnastics, we used only resistance training and used our own body weight. We learned that there needed to be a balance between strength and flexibility.” Miller adds that strength and flexibility training for teens needs to be perceived as “another healthy measure for them to understand from early on, so they can begin to grasp the correct methods to prevent injury.”

How Much Is Too Much?

When children participate in moderately intensive physical activity, their hearts beat faster than usual and they will begin to breathe harder. Miller says sometimes we have the tendency to think that the “intensity of an aerobic workout can be seen through the amount a child sweats or how hard they’re breathing.” The reality, she adds, is this is not enough to gauge their child’s active output.

“When measured appropriately, heart rate can act as a clear indicator of the body’s response to exercise,” Miller says. “It can provide accurate insight into physical exertion and how a child’s body is adapting to the level of intensity.”

Although more children and young adults are leaving their sedentary habits behind in favor of a more active lifestyle, there has unfortunately been a substantial rise reported in the amount of overtraining injuries diagnosed across the country. Some of these injuries can include fractures, ligament tears and concussions. As children and adults maintain high levels of intensive exercise, such injuries can occur, especially if they stem from a lack of skill development.

Miller advises parents to make sure their children understand the importance of exercising at their individual intensity level, since some children may try to push themselves too hard — “to the point of burning out or risking injury,” she says. “Finding your child’s individual target heart rate will help you to know the type and amount of movement needed for your child to reach an appropriate and healthy intensity level.”

To prevent these types of injuries, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in 2007 recommending sporting activities be limited to five days a week.

Taking Fitness Beyond the School Day

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that 150 minutes of physical education a week be provided to elementary school children across the U.S. However, only an estimated 8 percent of elementary schools across our nation provide daily physical education classes, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh. Even though the state mandates physical education in kindergarten through grade five and healthful living education in grades six through 12, it does not specify the required days or minutes per week of physical activity for elementary and middle schools. In addition, state and nationwide efforts to boost academic achievement have resulted in recess quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Thornton maintains that this is where parents can step up and overcome these obstacles by making physical activity a family priority. “Finding enjoyable, regular family activities that involve physical exertion is the key to making these healthy habits part of each child’s life,” he says.

o-fitness-shannon.jpgOlympic gold medal-winning gymnast Shannon Miller established The Shannon Miller Foundation to help combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity cases diagnosed across the nation. Inactivity places the estimated one-third of all U.S. children who are overweight at risk for developing chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure — conditions once only diagnosed in adults. Miller says her foundation’s mission is to provide a better understanding of the benefits of an active lifestyle. (At left, Olympic gold medalist Shannon Miller encourages children to make fitness a priority. Photo courtesy of Renee Parenteau)

“We get parents and their kids involved in physical activity by making fitness fun,” she says. “This can take the form of our Walk-Fit Program or our annual Women’s 5K and Children’s Fun Run, which are all featured programs that we’ve created to promote a healthy lifestyle.”

Along with a focus on fitness, Miller’s organization offers nutritional tips for healthy eating habits and ideas on managing stress, which, she says, “go hand in hand with a healthy lifestyle.”

For more information about The Shannon Miller Foundation, visit

Jennifer Lacey specializes in covering pregnancy/family health and lifestyle issues. She blogs at

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