American kids aren’t getting enough exercise, and this is hazardous to their health. Research has shown that only one in four school-age children is physically active for an hour a day, while only a third play outdoors four or more times a week. For some children, there are real barriers to doing these things, but for the vast majority, it’s just a case of poor habits. Many youngsters are paying the price when it comes to health – not only are they more likely to be obese, but they also face a greater risk of developing diabetes. In later life, they are at risk of heart disease and strokes, with inactive adults living, on average, four years less. They’re also more likely to develop mental health problems and suffer from stress. All these risks can be reduced simply by getting children to exercise or simply engage in active play.

Safe exercise for children

Children’s bodies are not the same as adults’, so they can’t simply be pushed into adult fitness routines. Unless they are receiving professional training for a sport, they shouldn’t be doing load-bearing exercise at all. Push-ups and sit-ups are safe, however, if not taken to extremes. Stretching exercises should be based on retaining rather than enhancing flexibility. What’s most important is for children to get lots of aerobic exercise, ideally involving different types of movement. Running, swimming, cycling, playing basketball or riding horses are all good options. If there’s nowhere safe to play outside, then dancing is easy to do anywhere, and some computer games are designed so that play requires whole-body active engagement.

Making it fun

Most children don’t have the same fiercely competitive streak that many adults who love exercise develop. They shouldn’t be worrying about body shape or losing weight – it’s important to help them feel confident about themselves just the way that they are. For this reason, children need different forms of motivation to exercise. The simplest of these is to make it fun. Time spent splashing around in the pool or going on a family bike ride can be a treat. Hiking trips can be made more interesting by combining them with education about the natural world. Young children get frustrated if asked to focus on one form of exercise for too long but can have great fun playing with different kinds of equipment and toys. Places such as adventure playgrounds provide opportunities for keeping fit that involve non-stop excitement.

Choosing equipment

When they’re young, children don’t need expensive gym equipment. Simple things such as bats, balls, skip ropes and hula hoops can provide hours of entertainment. As they get bigger, one can try introducing a padded bench or an exercise ball to increase the options available. Wall bars are a perennial favorite. If there’s room in the yard, then a swing can provide a lot of fun, and suspending pull-up rings from the frame provides a safe way to develop muscles in the arms.

Choosing clothes

As they grow up and start to exercise harder, it becomes increasingly important for children to have the right clothes to work out in. A good pair of sneakers reduces the risk of injury when running or engaging in sports such as basketball and tennis. The Tommie Copper kids range includes suitably sized support gear such as an ankle brace for kids. It’s also worth taking the time to teach kids about the importance of having the right gear for the environment, so as they start to do more things independently, they know, for instance, that they shouldn’t set off on a hiking trip without a warm jacket.

Encouraging reluctant children

Of course, not all children want to exercise, and pressuring them into it doesn’t get good results – stress can easily undo the positive benefits involved. Most kids, however, have some kind of physical activity that they enjoy, even if they haven’t figured out what it is yet. It’s a good idea to talk to them about what puts them off being active – it might be that they don’t socialize well in groups or that they just really hate getting cold. Whatever it is, there’s usually an alternative. When children are exposed to a wide range of sports, either directly or as spectators, then they can make positive choices about what they’d like to try. What matters then is that they get lots of encouragement and lots of praise when they do well.

Although it can feel tempting to give in to children when they say that they’re too tired to exercise or that they find it boring, it doesn’t help them in the long term. Introducing them to the joys of being active while they’re still young can help them live longer, happier lives.

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