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Everyone should engage in regular physical activity to improve overall health and fitness. While it’s never too late for adults to start getting in shape, children who develop good health and fitness habits early in their lives are establishing a strong foundation for a healthy and happy adulthood.

Children and adolescents spend an average of 6 to 8 hours per day in sedentary behaviors like sitting, lying down, watching TV, or using their phones or other screens, which can lead to obesity, disease, and poor mental and physical health.

Compared to those who are inactive, physically active youth have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, stronger muscles and bones, lower body fat, and better mental functioning.

Benefits of Good Fitness Habits in Children

In November, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) released a new version of its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans to help people understand how much exercise they need to be doing in order to stay healthy. It’s the first update to the guidelines since the original report was released in 2008, and the first to address physical fitness for preschool-aged children (ages 3 through 5 years).

For children, getting the right amount of exercise has numerous benefits, including:

  • Better weight status (ages 3-17)
  • Improved cognitive function, including performance on academic tests, processing speed, and memory (ages 6-13)
  • Reduced risk of depression (ages 6-13)
  • Improved bone health (ages 3-17)
  • Improved cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness (ages 6-17)
  • Improved cardiometabolic health (ages 6-17)

Suggested Exercises for Kids

According to the HHS report, children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years should do at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily and vigorous physical activity at least three times a week.

Moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, dancing, raking the yard, playing tag, gymnastics or tumbling, bicycle riding, and playing baseball or softball.

Vigorous-intensity activities include running, swimming laps, carrying a heavy load upstairs, shoveling snow, hiking, martial arts, cross-country skiing, jumping rope, and sports such as soccer, basketball, and tennis.

In addition to aerobic exercise, children age 6-17 should do muscle-strengthening physical activity at least three days a week, which includes anything that makes the muscles work harder than usual, like push-ups, climbing trees, tug-of-war, gymnastics, playing on playground equipment, and some types of yoga.

The guidelines also include bone-strengthening, or weight-bearing, physical activity at least three days a week, which includes jumping jacks, running, gymnastics, playing basketball or tennis, and jumping rope.

The report does not give specific guidelines for younger children, but says they should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development, with a target of three hours of activity per day. Activities can include playing catch, tricycle riding, hopping, skipping, and jumping.

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