Physical activity in children and teenagers

Many parents worry that their children are not active enough. Encouraging kids to be more active is not always easy, but there are many different ways to be physically active. Finding activities that your child enjoys and building some activity into the whole family’s day-to-day life should help get them on the right path.

What is meant by physical activity?

You don’t need to be a sports superstar to to be physically active. While physical activity does include organised physical activity, such as playing sport or participating in physical education (PE) classes at school, it also includes incidental activity - activities that are part of everyday living (e.g. walking to and from school or playing with the dog in the backyard).

So really, physical activity is any activity that gets you moving and makes your heartbeat and breathing get faster.

Why is it important to be physically active?

Physical activity benefits more than just our physical health. It helps kids become more independent and resilient, and enables them to appreciate the value of teamwork.

Some of the specific benefits of physical activity in children and teenagers include:

  • improving cardiovascular fitness;
  • helping to build strong bones;
  • maintaining a healthy weight;
  • aiding development of physical skills such as coordination and balance;
  • helping with relaxation;
  • improving sleep;
  • developing communication and problem-solving skills;
  • improving academic performance;
  • building self-esteem; and
  • developing emotional and social skills.

Sport and physical activity are becoming more strongly emphasised in school, as the benefits are increasingly recognised.

How much and what type of activity is recommended?

The recommended amount and intensity of physical activity varies according to the age of your child. The recommendation for school-aged children and teenagers in Australia is a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. This can be built up over the course of the day and can be made up of a variety of activities.

Moderate activity is about equal in intensity to a brisk walk - while some effort is involved, you are still able to talk while doing it.

Vigorous activity takes more effort, and the intensity of the activity is enough to make you breathe harder and faster - you get puffed. Any type of active play usually contains bursts of vigorous activity.

Where children have been inactive, it is recommended to start with moderate activity, of say 30 minutes per day, and build it up gradually.

Are Australian kids active enough?

The good news is that about two-thirds of Australian children participate in at least some form of organised sport or physical activity at least once a week. Participation rates in organised physical activity tend to vary by age, usually peaking around the age of 9-11 years and then dropping around 12-14 years.

But while many children are regularly playing sports, their overall daily activity levels are not ideal, with less than 20 per cent of children currently meeting the daily physical activity recommendations.

What can I do as a parent?

Some children really resist the idea of becoming more physically active. Some dislike physical activity (or their idea of physical activity) while others are resistant to change. You may want to try some of the following suggestions to help your child become more active.

Be a role model. Children with active parents are much more likely to be active themselves. Plus you get the added benefit of improving your own health.

If you don’t have the time (or the inclination) to go to the gym, perhaps swim some laps while your child has a swimming lesson, or walk around the football field while they are at training. Even just a half hour walk around your home or nearby park is helpful, and if your children see you are going for a walk, they just might want to join in!

Make physical activity a part of daily family life. For example, walk to school or the shops, walk the dog, or get off the bus one stop earlier and walk the rest of the way. Leave the car at home as much as possible. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.

Have fun while being active. Physical activity should be fun, but everyone’s taste is different. If joining the local soccer or netball team is not the type of activity your child would go for, think about swimming, dancing or karate lessons. Something less structured, such as bike riding, roller skating or scooting around a local park may be more appealing. Perhaps a game of hide and seek, moving to music or doing some gardening together is their idea of fun.

Family days out can be a good way to keep the kids moving. Go bushwalking, see local attractions or play frisbee at a family picnic.

Help your child develop physical skills, for example by playing ball with them in the backyard or at the local park. They will be more open to sports if they feel like they have the skills to participate.

Stay safe. Make sure all activities are age-appropriate and supply any necessary safety equipment (such as helmets or knee pads).

Limit screen time (time spent watching TV, using the internet and sitting and playing computer games). While some time relaxing in front of the TV or playing a video game is not likely to harm your child, if screen time tends to dominate your child’s free time they should probably cut down.

It’s recommended that school-aged children and adolescents do not spend more than 2 hours per day on screens. The recommended maximum amount of screen time for toddlers and preschool-aged children is just one hour per day.

Spending longer than this means that your child is spending too much time being sedentary (sitting still), and is missing out on the many benefits of physical activity. So set a timer or use an app or other program to manage your kids’ screen time, and try to get them to stick to it.

With older children, try to come to a mutual agreement about what amount of screen time is acceptable and how the limits will be enforced. Limiting screens in children’s bedrooms also helps you monitor the amount of time they spend on screens.

And, of course, it’s always important to supervise your children when they are having screen time to ensure that the material they are viewing is appropriate for their age and level of understanding.

Making kids’ activities more affordable

Many families find organised sports and activities difficult to afford, especially if there are multiple children in the family. Families in New South Wales currently have access to a NSW State Government Program called Active Kids, where they can get a $100 voucher to help pay for sports, fitness activities and active recreational activities.

The program is currently scheduled to run for 4 years from 2018. You can apply for a voucher each calendar year during this time for any of your children who are currently enrolled in school (including those who are home-schooled).

Last Reviewed: 3 June 2018
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References

1. Australian Government Department of Health. Australia’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines (updated Nov 2017). http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines#apa512 (accessed May 2018).
2. Australian Government Department of Health. Frequently asked questions regarding physical activity and sedentary behaviour (updated Nov 2017). http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/faq-phy-act-sedb-guide#children
3. Australian Government. Australian Sports Commission. AusPlay Focus. Children’s participation in organised physical activity outside of school hours. April, 2018. https://www.clearinghouseforsport.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/796827/AusPlay_focus_Children_Participation.pdf (accessed May 2018).
4. NSW Office of Sport. Active Kids program: Recipient guidelines, 2017. https://sportandrecreation.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/Active_Kids_Recipient_Guidelines_20171119.pdf (accessed May 2018).
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Making physical activity a party of a child’s life (updated 5 June 2015). https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adding-pa/activities-children.html (accessed May 2018).
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