How much exercise does your child need?

It’s no secret that kids need physical activity for healthy bodies and minds – but the amount and intensity of exercise they require varies greatly depending on their age.

A recent study on global trends in physical activity among adolescents found children were not doing enough exercise – especially younger teens.

The study, published in The Lancet, concluded it was crucial to make daily physical activity a focus for kids.

How much exercise do children need?

University of Canberra associate professor Richard Keegan says when it comes to the amount of activity “it’s often more than you think”.

“Kids get an awful lot of benefit from active play,” says the sport and exercise psychologist.

“It is good for them physically, but exercise and running around also allows kids to understand how they interact and the rules of play, even when they are very young.”

Exercise for children aged 0 to 5 years

While this is too young to be doing anything too energetic or co-ordinated, toddlers should still be getting three hours of physical activity every day.

This can range from “tummy time” to walking and climbing stairs.

Prof Keegan says one trick is to leave the pram at home, so your toddler becomes accustomed to walking – but be careful not to overwork them and keep things spontaneous and fun.

Exercise for children aged 5 to 12 years

According to Australian government guidelines, children this age should be getting at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity every day. Sedentary behaviour such as sitting should be limited to two hours.

Ideally, adolescents should puff when exercising, which makes running, skipping, riding a bike or team sports all good choices.

It is also important they do activities to strengthen muscles, such as using the monkey bars at the playground.

Exercise for children aged 13 to 17 years

For adolescents, physical exercise is more important than ever.

They should be doing a minimum of 60 minutes every day and can safely do a moderate amount for up to three hours.

This can be broken up into blocks and done with friends or solo, but kids should stay hydrated, eat healthy snacks for energy and stretch when appropriate.

Why kids should start exercising when they are young

While exercise at any stage of life is good, starting younger will help set up healthy habits for life.

“If you can create good experiences in early childhood and make exercise feel completely natural and normal, same as cleaning your teeth and having three meal as day, then it is likely they will continue this into adulthood,” Prof Keegan says.

When can kids start high-intensity or high-contact sports?

Interestingly, there is no age recommended to start children on more intense exercise.

Prof Keegan says every child is different and the best time “is when they are ready”.

“You can have some kids picking up golf clubs at two, and I have met an international rugby player who hadn’t played a game until he was 19 and became one of the best in the world,” he says.

“So, age is not necessarily a good reference point. It’s like walking before you crawl; every child is different and generally speaking you would look at your kid and say: ‘What can they currently do, and what are they ready for next?’”

Struggling to get kids up and out?

The reality is that it may be tough to create active kids.

“The trick is about not making it feel like exercise,” Prof Keegan says.

“It can just be small incidental things like dog walks or parking further away.

“Typically, it’s a matter of trying a whole bunch of things with no pressure and finding which one your child gets benefit from.”

He also recommends using rewards, such as offering more screen time, as a last resort.

Written by Alex White