You’ve heard it time and again: A balanced diet and daily exercise are crucial for good health. This is equally as true for children as it is for adults, and you probably work hard to make sure that you don’t leave the grocery store with a cart full of junk food.
It may be harder, though, to make sure your kids are getting enough exercise each day. A recent study in Australia found that girls were 19 percent less physically active and were “noticeably less physically fit” than boys the same age. Researchers theorized that boys received more encouragement than girls to play sports and be active during the school day.
The Benefits of Physical Activity for Children
This shocking bit of science reveals that we need to do much more to encourage kids to be active throughout the day — especially girls. Here are some of the health benefits children receive from regular exercise:
- Reduced risk for obesity: Kids who are active are less likely to be overweight, and this protects them from myriad health problems, including Type 2 diabetes.
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol: Exercise helps keep blood pressure at healthy levels and cholesterol low, which both support a healthy cardiovascular system and reduce your child’s risk for heart disease.
- Stronger muscles and bones: The only way to build muscle mass is to use those muscles, and more muscle means less body fat as metabolism increases.
- Reduced stress and incidence of depression: Regular exercise makes kids feel good about themselves and reduces their likelihood of becoming depressed or anxious. And it’s also fun!
Encouraging Unstructured Play
Physical activity doesn’t have to mean signing up for an organized, competitive sports teams each season. For younger kids, unstructured play is often all that’s required to get them up and moving. When left to their own devices, kids can turn anything into a toy or a game, and they come up with all kinds of creative ways to use basic playground equipment to get some exercise — no adult intervention required.
Here’s how your child can benefit from freedom to play outside with friends and siblings:
- Learning social skills: When kids are left to interact without much adult refereeing, they learn to advocate for themselves and negotiate rules of fairness. They also learn to compromise and solve problems collaboratively.
- Developing grit: Unstructured play allows children to face a challenge and learn to overcome it on their own schedule. Remember when you first worked up the courage to swing from one monkey bar to the next? Some things need to be learned independently.
- Physical fitness: Given half the chance, kids will run, jump and climb when allowed to make up their own games. It’s natural for children to crave physical activity, so all you need to do is give them a safe space in which to do it.
Ideas for Adding Physical Activity to Your Child’s Routine
To encourage your child to exercise on a daily basis, try adding these fun activities to your day:
- Walk or bike to school
- Offer a daily dose of playground time between school and homework
- Give your child the responsibility of making sure a pet receives daily exercise
- Play catch, tag or other fun outdoor games as a reward for completing homework or chores
All it takes to make sure your child exercises more is a commitment to carve out some free time to make it happen. You don’t need to buy any special equipment or teach any special skills — simply let your child take the lead and start having fun!