Regular physical activity contributes to a child’s physical development and promotes overall well-being. It may help if parents and caregivers can encourage them in active play, playground activities, and sports where possible.

Research highlights the positive effects of exercise on children’s physical, cognitive, and emotional wellness.

Understanding the extensive benefits of exercise for children empowers parents, caregivers, educators, and healthcare professionals to prioritize physical activity in children’s daily routines. Most experts advise that children engage in some form of physical activity every day, whether structured or unstructured.

This article looks at the benefits of exercise for children, explores potential barriers to engaging in physical activity, and provides some activity ideas.

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Regular exercise offers a multitude of benefits for children. It can impact their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Some benefits include:

  • Better cardiorespiratory fitness: Aerobic activities such as running, cycling, swimming, and dancing help strengthen the heart muscle and improve its efficiency. They also increase cardiac output, allowing the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood more effectively throughout the body.
  • Strong bones and muscles: Weight-bearing exercises, such as running, jumping, and resistance training, help stimulate bone tissue growth and increase bone density. Exercise also stimulates muscle fibers, leading to increased muscle mass and strength. Well-developed muscles support better posture and overall physical performance.
  • Weight management: Exercise increases energy expenditure, helping children burn calories and maintain a moderate weight. It also helps regulate metabolism, the process of converting food into energy.
  • Coordination and motor skills: Exercise helps improve coordination, balance, and motor skills in children. Activities involving body movements challenge children to coordinate their muscles and movements effectively, promoting the development of neuromuscular connections and enhancing overall motor skills.
  • Cognitive development: Exercise positively impacts cognitive function and academic performance. Physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, enhancing cognitive abilities such as attention, memory, and problem-solving skills.
  • Mental and emotional well-being: Exercise promotes positive mental health and emotional well-being. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones, which reduce stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Regular exercise also boosts self-esteem, improves body image, and promotes a positive self-perception.

The recommended amount of exercise for children varies based on their age and developmental stage.

It is best for preschoolers — or children ages 3–5 five years, approximately — to be physically active during the day and during play. However, there are no specific guidelines for how much exercise they need.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that school-aged children and adolescents — those around 6–17 years old — do at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day.

Schools are legally required to help students in meeting this recommendation by providing equal exercise opportunities for children with diverse abilities.

Some activities that promote physical fitness and overall well-being in children include:

  • Active play: This involves unstructured playtime, such as running, jumping, climbing, and playing tag.
  • Cycling: Riding a bicycle is a fun activity that helps improve cardiovascular fitness, leg strength, and coordination.
  • Dancing: Dancing is an excellent way for children to express themselves creatively while improving cardiovascular endurance, coordination, and flexibility.
  • Skipping rope: Skipping rope is a simple and effective exercise that improves cardiovascular fitness, coordination, and rhythm.
  • Playground activities: Common playground equipment such as swings, slides, and climbing frames engage various muscle groups and improve balance and coordination.
  • Yoga: Children can try age-appropriate in-person yoga classes or online resources. Yoga can enhance flexibility, balance, and mindfulness.
  • Sports: Organized sports such as soccer, basketball, gymnastics, or martial arts can promote physical fitness, teamwork, and skill development.

Potential barriers

Research suggests that poverty and a lack of access to facilities are significant barriers to children being able to get the exercise they need.

A 2020 cross-sectional study suggests that family financial strains and limited economic resources within neighborhoods with long-term poverty regularly prevent children living in certain areas from using health-promoting resources. Other research has also reported similar findings.

For example, the authors of a 2017 study among communities with low income levels in Colorado state that their key finding was that although parents and caregivers were eager to promote children’s physical activity, they faced significant environmental and community-level barriers in doing so, such as:

  • neighborhood inequities and a lack of affordability
  • limited access to high quality facilities
  • illicit activity and a lack of traffic safety in public spaces where children might play
  • long work hours for working parents

For these reasons, the CDC point out that school-based programs are an important element of children’s engagement in physical activity.

It is important that children are active to promote physical and overall health.

Some tips people may wish to try to encourage children to be more active include:

  • Being a role model: It may help to try to be an active role model for children, demonstrating the importance of physical activity through an active lifestyle.
  • Making it fun: Children may enjoy physical activity more if they find it exciting. People can try incorporating games, challenges, and playful elements into exercise routines.
  • Encouraging active transportation: If it is safe to do so, walking or biking to school or nearby destinations instead of relying solely on car rides can increase children’s physical activity and teach them about sustainable transportation choices.
  • Facilitating variety: Where possible, it may be helpful to expose children to various physical activities and sports, allowing them to explore different options and discover their interests.
  • Trying family fitness: Regular family fitness activities, such as walks or hikes, bike rides, or dance parties, may promote a sense of togetherness while fostering an active lifestyle. These activities may create opportunities for bonding, positive memories, and a shared love of physical activity.

However, socioeconomic and community-level factors can create barriers to parents and caregivers being able to avail of certain opportunities for exercise.

Where facilities are not available or affordable, the Move Your Way initiative of the United States Department of Health and Human Services has a tool that may offer additional ideas for helping children reach the recommended amount of daily activity.

These include doing household chores together as part of daily exercise or taking turns with other parents and caregivers to walk a group of kids to and from school, where possible.

Some questions a person may wish to ask a doctor about exercise and children include the following:

  • Are there any particular types of training or activities that are most beneficial for children?
  • What are the recommended guidelines for the duration, frequency, and intensity of exercise for a child?
  • Are there any specific considerations or precautions to consider when encouraging exercise for children with certain health conditions or diverse abilities?
  • Are there any types of exercise children need to avoid?
  • Are there any additional lifestyle factors or habits that can enhance the benefits of exercise for children?
  • Can you provide recommendations or resources for age-appropriate exercises or activities to incorporate into a child’s daily routine?
  • How can people keep children safe when riding bicycles and swimming?

Regular physical activity promotes children’s growth and development, improves cardiovascular fitness, strengthens bones and muscles, and supports maintaining a moderate body weight.

Additionally, exercise enhances children’s cognitive function, academic performance, social skills, and emotional well-being.

Parents and caregivers may be able to help promote regular exercise in children by providing opportunities for active play and physical activity at home, engaging them in age-appropriate activities available to them, or encouraging participation in organized sports.