Children’s physical activity is having somewhat of a revival in the national consciousness. Once the preserve of vaguely depressing P.E. lessons and old gym equipment, we increasingly understand how important, fun and vital movement is for optimal health. But are our children exercising enough, how much do they actually need and what truly counts as “exercise”? And most importantly, how can we help our children to move more and sit less?

Current data shows that only 21% of boys and 16% of girls aged 5 to 15 meet activity recommendations; along with only 1 in ten children aged 2 to 4. These statistics paint a pretty bleak picture of current activity status, and unfortunately these proportions have fallen in recent years and continue to decrease. A combination of increasingly engaging indoor activities reduced funding and facilities for leisure centres and school sports, and wariness by parents to let their kids out of sight all potential contribute to the problem.

Importance of physical activity for health




But what’s so great about exercise? Well, “if we had a pill containing all the benefits of exercise, it would be the most widely prescribed drug in the world”. That common cliché really is true. Exercise reduces the risk of becoming overweight, developing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Physical activity is vital for optimal growth, including the development of bone mineral density. Research has associated exercise with improved mental health, attention at school and potentially even better academic performance. Social sports have been linked to improved empathy, leadership and self-esteem. Physical activity may even help decrease the severity of ADHD symptoms, as well as improve cognition.

How much exercise is enough exercise?

We might all know physical activity is brilliant, but asking how much our children actually need may elicit confusion. There are two main sets of guidelines, one for children aged 5 to 18, and one for the under 5s. Types of exercise recommended are of course completely dependent on age; the examples given here can be adapted for preference, fitness level and equipment availability.

For children under 5 who can walk unaided, 3 hours of physical activity spread throughout the day is recommended. This includes light activity such as standing, walking and less energetic play, as well as more active play, running, trampolining, biking, dancing, skipping, gymnastics or swimming. More information can be found on the NHS website.

For young people ages 5 to 18, one hour of moderate to vigorous daily activity is recommended, including bone and muscle strengthening exercises 3 days per week.

Vigorous activity includes dancing, swimming, running, gymnastics, football, cycling, martial arts and many others, including playing chase at school! Anything where heart rate is accelerated and talking is difficult to talk is generally regarded as vigorous exercise. More moderate activities include walking, riding a scooter, skateboarding and rollerblading.







Muscle strengthening for children definitely does not require a trip to the gym, but playing on equipment such as monkey bars, rope or tree climbing, gymnastics, tennis, rock climbing, football, rugby, basketball or good old fashioned exercises like sit-ups all count. Bone strengthening activities essentially just involve some form of resistance, whether lifting body weight or external weight. Jumping and climbing, skipping with a rope, running, dance, ball sports and martial arts are all examples. More information can be found on the NHS website.

Both groups are advised to minimise sedentary time, for example being restrained (for the under 5s) or just sitting or lying in bedrooms or family spaces. It’s worth noting that exercise needn’t be continuous, 4 bursts of 15 minutes is just as good as an hour.

My family needs more exercise! What now?

It can be difficult to drag our reluctant kids, teens and adult family members away from the glowing screens and infinite entertainment on offer at home. There’s therefore a strong argument that we need to make exercise as appealing as possible! Not only do we need to encourage children to exercise but they need to develop healthy activity habits for life. Positive attitudes towards physical activity in adolescence continue to predict exercise levels 10 years later, so it’s crucial that we do the work now to create adults with better long term health.

Below are just a few strategies to encourage more movement:

  • Focus on intrinsic motivation: emphasise the feel good/mood boosting benefits of exercise
  • Gamify exercise: Pokémon Go may appeal to any obsessed kids, but other options are available, get creative. Be sure to bring up road safety with your kids before releasing them to the wild outdoors!
  • Exercise as a family: join in with your kids play or check out a local walk
  • Buy some sports equipment: A football, hula-hoop or even a Frisbee are all relatively inexpensive ways of making exercise more interesting
  • Try after school clubs or check out schemes at your local leisure centre
  • Ask your child’s school if they offer British Cycling courses

There’s no need to be too prescriptive with what constitutes “exercise”; building exercise into your child’s day through walking or cycling to school, running in the park, playing football with the family, attending a school club or hill climbing at the weekend is a much more approachable, sustainable and lifelong approach to exercise.

Focus on the fun and get moving







Charlie Rose Howard, Dietetic Student

Charlie is a BSc Nutrition and Dietetics student at King’s College London. She’s interested in all things public health, child health, and evidence based. Tweet her @charlieroseRD2B

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