Exercise for Children
What age do you start?
There is no set age to start, but as soon after they are born is usually a good time. Babies have the grip, kick and walk reflex built in. In the beginning, it is something as simple as letting baby grip your fingers and gently pulling (not so the head leaves the ground!) Remember that a baby’s head weighs a lot in relation to their body and that only when they are ready and strong enough will they be able to support it. Putting your hands under their feet and let them push against you will help them. This gentle resistance starts to stimulate muscle growth and increase bone density. Don’t try and force this stage as babies and small children have a natural desire to get to their feet, explore their environment and discover their world and will do so naturally. The best thing you can do is let them go at their own pace and encourage and praise them.
Government guidelines state babies should be encouraged to be active from birth. Before your baby begins to crawl, encourage them to be physically active by reaching and grasping, pulling and pushing, moving their head, body and limbs during daily routines, and during supervised floor play, including tummy time. Once babies can move around, encourage them to be as active as possible in a safe, supervised nurturing play environment.
For toddlers and children who can walk on their own should be physically active every day for at least 180 minutes (3 hours). This should be spread throughout the day, indoors or outside and part of it should make them huff and puff.
What do you mean by exercise for babies & toddlers?
Exercise for toddlers and babies should be about learning; learning to move, increasing co-ordination, building strength naturally and most of all, having fun. By using simple games such as rolling a ball to each other along the floor encourages neuro-muscular pathways to form that give us better co-ordination and control over our bodies and so better movement patterns, a healthy and positive attitude to exercise and lifestyle. Ball rolling can be progressed to throw and catch or roll/throw and chase. As you do it, encourage counting or recite the alphabet and above all, enjoy it yourself. If your child sees that you are having fun, they will link playing and exercise with enjoyment and as they get older they are more likely to continue with this thought process.
Exercise is not only about games and activities. When and where you can, get outside for walks, or as I called it, exploration. Make every journey an adventure. The great outdoors provides a lot of physical and mental stimulation for children. Crawling, walking and running on different surfaces challenges pro-prioception (how our nerves automatically control balance) and where possible, do it barefoot! The greatest concentration of nerve endings is in our feet and with good reason. It will encourage a better, more natural gait and posture and with lots of open space, will give you both a chance to run around with associated benefits for the cardio-vascular system, vitamin D absorption and calorie burning to mention but a few.
What ways can we encourage our children it's fun?
As I’ve highlighted, by enjoying it ourselves, our children will consciously and subconsciously feed on that and develop behaviours and habits more consistent with a healthy and active lifestyle. I found that by spending time with my children, we became closer and through our exploration and adventures, we communicated better, understood each other better and subsequently were more tolerant because of the sharing aspect.
Take them to clubs and groups. Shared experiences are powerful motivators to children. If they have fun with other children, again, a link is created between fun and exercise / activity.
If and when you take your children to clubs, don’t be afraid or hesitant to join in. A child’s perception of the world and how they should act is greatly influenced in the first instance by parents. If you sit there and don’t join in, your child will see this and, I guarantee, will use it against you in the future when they are testing boundaries and “don’t want to go!” If you become active within the club or group, your child will be more willing to join in if they see you coaching, organizing, encouraging or participating. It’s also great way to meet new people, get some exercise, boost your own confidence and learning and have fun. The club will also thank you for it as having volunteers makes life so much easier for them.
Why is it important?
The benefits of exercise for everyone are well known but it is probably even more vital for children. All studies undertaken about childhood health and fitness all come to the same conclusions. Namely exercise and diet are key factors for reducing childhood obesity and warding off associated health risks both physical and mental as they get older.
The main physical advantages of exercise are better weight management, better cardio-vascular function and associated reduction risk of heart disease and elevated blood pressure, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (increasingly common in children), increased bone mass and density that will be carried into adulthood meaning less risk of osteoporosis, greater strength and better co-ordination.
The physical benefits for the child are priceless but from a socio-economic perspective, having a fitter, healthier and more active life reduces the strain on health services and also means we can all enjoy longer more fulfilling lives filled with fun and laughter as we all enjoy ourselves.
Are there benefits other than physical?
If being in better physical shape is not enough, there are many other positives of exercise for children. As they learn new skills, their level of confidence increases and in turn encourages them to try new things, which develops into a cycle of achievement. Energy levels also increase and the chemicals released during exercise help relieve stress and so encourage better behaviour. Who wouldn’t want that?
Exercise is also an opportunity to let a child experience and cope failure. They may simply not be able to catch that ball, but with encouragement from parents and/or peers, a child can learn perseverance and overcome that failure whilst creating those neuro-muscular pathways that allow the physical movement.
All children get older and if they have positive experiences of exercise, they are more likely to crave that physical stimulus and challenge and so will join sports clubs and mix with other like minded individuals. There they learn social skills and form a social network that provides friendship and support through their developing years.
If that isn’t enough, who wouldn’t say no to a good night’s sleep for you as well as the child. When we sleep, our body uses it as an opportunity for repairing and strengthening muscles and bones as well as a period of mental recovery. Therefore, if our child is fatigued through activity and exercise, they are more likely to sleep better as their body is busy repairing itself. We can aid this process as well as control behaviour with good nutrition.
Exercise for children covers a huge range of topics and is different according to age and stage of their life. Children require different inputs and stimuli according to age, development, understanding and physical capability and the greatest amount of development occurs in the early years. By giving your child the best start and developing good behaviours, habit and attitudes towards exercise and nutrition, you can give them the best start in life which can influence how they live their whole life. If you exercise together as a family, again you not only get the physical benefits but you learn to live together, communicate well and become stronger as a family unit. And let’s not forget the most important aspect...... It’s FUN!
I left the Royal Marines in 2004 to become a house husband and help raise my two wonderful children. As part of that, I wanted to share with them my love of exercise and the outdoors. The journey has been an interesting one and I’m sure that I have gained more and learnt more from them than the other way round. As they have grown, I have watched how they move, learn, think, made mistakes and developed into the little people that they are. I’ve made mistakes along the way, after all, they don’t come with and instruction manual although Haynes did make an attempt! Whilst the government and various health services try to promote exercise and healthier lifestyles, they can sometimes seem remote and slightly disconnected from the reality. Whilst it is easy to learn how the body works, the mechanical and physiological processes, there is only one true way to understand, and that is through experience. Through my own children I have learned to enjoy working with all children through their various clubs and activities and I hope that I make a positive impact on their development both physically and mentally and that they have as much fun as I do!
For more on the government guidelines and more information on exercise with children go to http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/physical-activity-guidelines-for-children.aspx
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Enjoy your children, enjoy your life!