Encouraging Exercise in Your Kids

Last Editorial Review: 4/18/2005

The ABCs of getting your kids outside and active

By Wendy Fries
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Reading, writing, 'rithmetic, and recess.

One of these things is not like the others. Though kids get plenty of reading, writing, and arithmetic at school, it turns out many can't depend on recess any longer.

Pressure placed on schools to produce higher test scores often means cutting programs that are not graded -- like recess and PE. An estimated 40% of all elementary schools have cut recess or are in the process of doing so, says Rhonda L. Clements, president of the American Association of the Child's Right to Play (IPAUSA).

Worse still, the CDC reports that in 2003, only 55.7% of high school students were enrolled in a PE class.

Yet the CDC says the number of overweight kids has tripled since 1980, putting kids at risk for early heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Now more than ever, we need to encourage our kids to get out and get active.

A Is for Access to Temptation

Webster's defines activity as vigorous or energetic action -- in short, everything that gets the blood pumping, from rolling down a grassy hill to kicking through piles of fall leaves. Adults often think fitness means a formal plan, a membership, or special gear.

Instead, just getting kids moving is the key, experts say, with the American Heart Association recommending at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity daily.

But many kids just aren't getting that much. And most groups are unanimous on the prime culprit: sedentary entertainment, meaning the temptations of the TV, computer, and video games.

"Most physicians and experts recommend children get no more than two hours of television and computer time per day," says Rallie McAllister, MD, author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim, and a family practitioner in Kingsport, Tenn.

So the first step toward fitter kids is to reduce your child's TV and computer time by setting reasonable limits, recommends McAllister. Help your child budget their TV time at the beginning of the week, selecting the programs they most want to see. Investing in a device that automatically turns off electronics after an allotted time is also a good idea. This way "the device is the bad guy and the parent is not," says McAllister.

B Is for Being There

Once the TV's siren song is silenced, it's time to get moving yourself. That's because children imitate what they see, and if you return laughing and full of neighborhood news after a bike ride, they're more likely to want to take part in the fun.

But if your child is hesitant, don't force the issue, recommends Michell Muldoon, president of FunPlayDates.com, a web site promoting creative play for kids. Instead, she recommends focusing more fully on your own activity so that it has more appeal. More often than not a child "will become involved at their own pace and enter into the activity without feeling he or she has been forced into participation," Muldoon says.

C Is for Choices

Like adults, children have distinct personalities, and what one thrives on might bore another. "Some children are naturally social and energetic," says Muldoon. "Some are physical. Some are creative and some intellectual. What stimulates one child may have absolutely no appeal to another."

Choice is the key. For children that flourish with free-play activities, there's jump-rope, gardening, hop-scotch, hikes in the woods, or walks to school. Some families go in for kickball, tag, or hide-and-seek. Fall is a great time to build stick forts and gather autumn leaves for a collage, while winter brings with it the fashioning of snow families and other icy fun.

For kids who like more structure, there are dance classes, sports teams, and the YMCA/YWCA. Experts like Mark J. Occhipinti, PhD, president of American Fitness Professionals & Associates, recommend strength training as a great route to fitness. "Children should be strong," says Occhipinti, and strength training "develops strong bones, confidence, balance, and coordination."

Supervised strength training (everything from climbing to medicine balls to weights) helps kids develop into healthier, stronger adults, says Occhipinti. Just ask the photogenic governor of California; Arnold Schwarzenegger took up strength training when he was just 14 years old.

D is for Doctor

Before kids duck out for hide-and-seek or endeavor to become millionaire bodybuilders, most experts agree they may need a trip to the doctor before starting an exercise program.

If a child is overweight, has a medical condition, or symptoms of any type (chronic shortness of breath, for example), then a physical is "a good preventative precaution," says Occhipinti. A doctor can also check on your child's physical development and even make recommendations for activities.

And don't forget a checkup for yourself, especially if you haven't been active for awhile.

Rescuing Recess

If, along with encouraging your kids to get active at home, you want to be sure they enjoy the same prospects through school recess, get active. A few tips from IPAUSA include:

  • Talk with your child's classroom teacher to find out if, when, and how often your child has recess.
  • If you're less than pleased with the answer, coordinate with your school parent association and plan a visit to the principal to discuss recess and your concerns.
  • Finally, band together with other schools within your district and plan a community play day.

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

Going beyond fitness, getting active, and playing with others helps kids form relationships, negotiate social situations, solve problems, and develop tools to teach them about the strength of their own character, says FunPlayDates.com's Michell Muldoon. And many, including the IPAUSA, believe play -- specifically recess -- enhances learning, meaning more academically focused kids and better grades in reading, writing and ... well, you get the idea.

But "the most important consideration," sums up Muldoon, "is that we make sure our children have a chance to experience the magic of play and the richness of a community," so that kicking a ball in the park, scrambling across the monkey bars, and rolling downhill until dizzy continue to remain child's play.

Published Oct. 25, 2004.

SOURCES: Rhonda L. Clements, president, American Association of the Child's Right to Play. Michell Muldoon, president, funplaydates.com. Mark J. Occhipinti, PhD, president, American Fitness Professionals & Associates. Rallie McAllister, MD. CDC. American Heart Association.

©2004 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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