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Tips for encouraging physical activity in kids — and why it matters

Written by Lindsay Smith

September, back to school and routines: it all seems to go together. If you’re taking time to refresh habits and routines for your family this year, don’t forget to include your kids’ physical activity. Dr. Rahul Jain, family physician at Sunnybrook, shares ways families can prioritize physical activity based on Canada’s 24-Hour Movement Guidelines.

The whole day matters

The 24-Hour Movement Guidelines don’t look at a single behaviour, but instead focus on how several behaviours work together to create a healthy lifestyle.

“These guidelines are the first to look at 24 hours, to say the whole day matters, instead of looking in isolation at physical activity, for example,” Dr. Jain says. “So we’re looking at getting enough time and intensity in movement, lowering the amount of sedentary time and getting enough sleep.”

For children and youth five to 17 years old, the recommendation is 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, muscle-strengthening exercises three days a week as well as several hours throughout the week of “structured and unstructured physical activities.”

That might sound overwhelming, but Dr. Jain says not to panic.

“My philosophy is, rather than being prescriptive, especially in kids, focus on the idea of ‘more is better.’ Similar to a well-balanced diet, I would say focus on incorporating a variety of activities,” he says.

Dr. Jain suggests starting at a level that is comfortable and building from there. An hour a day might be too much at the beginning, but any physical activity is better than none, so don’t be afraid to start somewhere and build on it.

Benefits of physical activity

The benefits of consistent physical activity for children and youth are wide-ranging, for both physical and mental health.

“There’s good evidence that it improves body composition, improves cardiovascular fitness and encourages better metabolic health — so reduces the chances of diabetes, for example,” Dr. Jain says.

But the benefits are not only physical.

“It promotes pro-social behaviours, which I think is super important after COVID-19 lockdowns,” he says. “And when we talk about mental health in children or youth, physical activity can help with emotional regulation.”

There is also evidence that children and youth who are involved in regular physical activity experience higher academic achievement and improved cognition.

“Being physically active at a young age establishes good habits as well,” Dr. Jain says, adding if it’s ingrained at a young age, they are more likely to make it a way of life as they get older. “It promotes a good quality of life.”

For kids who don’t like sports

Sports are a great way for children and youth to get active, but not all kids enjoy sports, so what are some options for them?

“Whatever works for the person,” he says. “You can individualize activities based on the child and based on their interests.”

Dr. Jain says doing activities as a family is one great option, whether it’s visiting parks, conservation areas or the local YMCA.

“Family time is key. Kids who grow up seeing their parents being active will likely grow up with these same positive behaviours,” he says.

It doesn’t have to be complicated — walking to school, taking a family walk along a waterfront, swimming — these are all accessible options that can encourage children and youth to be active. And while being active outdoors more than indoors is best, Dr. Jain says online options (he gives the example of Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube) can still meet the need.

What’s most important is consistent activity, and setting these habits when children are young so they’re more likely to continue an active lifestyle as adults.

About the author

Lindsay Smith