Kristin McGee is the full-time working mom of three boys and realizes the value of mindful movement and meditation. She currently teaches yoga and meditation for Peloton.
Emily is a board-certified science editor who has worked with top digital publishing brands like Voices for Biodiversity, Study.com, GoodTherapy, Vox, and Verywell.
Kids need to be active every day for their health and happiness. Physical activity can help children and adolescents build strong bones and muscles, keep weight steady, promote better sleep, and protect against several diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. A regular fitness routine can even reduce feelings of anxiety and depression in kids.
Now more than ever, it can be tricky to get kids to unplug and play. But with some creative strategies, fitness can be fun, not a chore. Here are ideas for getting kids motivated to be active with friends, with you, or on their own.
Many fitness centers have age minimums, mainly to keep kids safe. Equipment like stationary bikes are often designed for people around 5 feet or taller, and treadmills can pose a real injury risk to children. But some family-friendly gyms welcome children to work out alongside a parent. Kids as young as 7 or 8 can begin resistance training using weights. They should be supervised by a certified strength-training expert to ensure they use proper techniques to prevent injuries.
At age 10, kids should do 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activities each day. The best kind of workouts for this age group are aerobic: activities that get the heart pumping fast and exercise large muscle groups. Some kids this age may enjoy creating or joining an after-school running club. They should also do activities that strengthen their muscles or bones a few times a week. Jumping rope builds cardiovascular capacity and bone strength, and kids can do it anywhere.
The best physical activities for kids are ones that keep them moving and that they enjoy doing. For many children, team sports like soccer and basketball are a perfect way to keep fit and bond with friends. Others gravitate toward less traditional sports, such as archery, fencing, or water polo. Still, other kids prefer non-competitive physical activities and might enjoy dance, jumping rope, and even hula hooping.
To spark your child's interest, family exercise should be fun, not forced. Preschoolers will appreciate active games like dragon tag, freeze dance, or balloon volleyball. For bigger kids, consider activities that allow you to take on a challenge together. Learn a lifetime sport like golf or pickleball side by side, sign up for an adventure race, or try geocaching.
Your child is more likely to enjoy and stick with physical activities when they get to do it with their favorite grown-up: you! And active kids, in turn, may motivate you to revive a fitness routine that was shelved when you became a parent.
Doing physical activities together can also promote family bonding since you are all working hard and having fun together. It's a healthy cycle. As families spend more active time together, relationships tend to improve, which often inspires parents and kids to participate in more family fitness activities to keep the good vibe going.
Rather than putting kids on an "exercise plan," present them with plenty of active choices and opportunities. For small children, make a chart with pictures of a dozen or so activities, including active games they can do on their own. Consider giving them a small reward for trying new activities or doing a certain number per week, which is a proven motivator. Arrange for social older kids to do fitness with a friend, whether it's taking them to a martial arts class or driving them to a cool hiking spot on the weekend. Cool gear never hurts: Buy them hand weights in their favorite color or workout clothes they feel good in.
Make physical activity a daily part of life from the time they are small. Take the stairs with them instead of the elevator at the airport or mall and make a tradition of after-dinner walks or once-a-week bike rides. Keep active toys around family spaces, since kids are more likely to play with what's easily accessible. Once they are a bit older, push for more physical activities at your child's school and let them try a variety of sports until they find one they love.
Family-friendly gyms have features that are attractive to parents and kids. Many have childcare programs or swim lessons that can occupy your child while you work out. Some have special hours when children can exercise alongside you or trainers who run cardio or strength-training classes for kids. Ask about family membership deals when you sign up.
An after-school club is an organized gathering of kids or teens who participate in an extracurricular activity. The club may be run by your child's school, a non-profit organization (like Kiwanis), or a private company. Scouts, sports, and faith groups are examples of after-school clubs.
Stability is an important gross motor skill that tests balance, strength, and coordination. When measuring a child's stability skills, a pediatrician or occupational therapist will look at their ability to hold their bodies steady when standing still, when moving, and when making twisting or turning movements.
Cardiovascular endurance refers to how efficiently your heart and lungs coordinate to flood your body with oxygenated blood, which helps keep you moving at a fast and steady clip. Cardiorespiratory endurance activities test your ability to do an activity that increases your heart rate for a long period without getting too winded. To be optimally fit, kids need 60 minutes of "cardio"—heart-pumping—activity each day.
Manipulative motor skills relate to the ability to move or use an object with your hands or feet. To develop fine manipulative motor skills in your child, you can have them play with blocks, draw or scribble, or stack toys. Rolling a ball back and forth or even building a couch fort will test and build their gross manipulative motor skills.
If your child is goal-oriented or a gamer, an activity tracker might motivate them to be more active. Usually designed to be worn on the wrist, colorful kids' activity trackers function mainly like pedometers to record how many steps your child is taking each day. Many provide motivating videos and games when kids reach a certain activity level.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity Facts. Reviewed April 21, 2020.
Lohana P, Hemington-Gorse S, Thomas C, Potokar T, Wilson Y. Paediatric injuries due to home treadmill use: an emerging problem. Annals. 2012;94(2):121-123. doi:10.1308/003588412X13171221501942
Nemours Foundation. Strength training. Reviewed August 2018.
Nemours Foundation. Fitness and your 6- to 12-year-old. Reviewed June 2019.
Solomon-Moore E, Sebire SJ, Thompson JL, Zahra J, Lawlor DA, Jago R. Are parents’ motivations to exercise and intention to engage in regular family-based activity associated with both adult and child physical activity? BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2017;2(1):e000137. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000137
Brown HE, Atkin AJ, Panter J, Wong G, Chinapaw MJ, van Sluijs EM. Family-based interventions to increase physical activity in children: A systematic review, meta-analysis and realist synthesis. Obes Rev. 2016;17(4):345-360. doi:10.1111/obr.12362
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