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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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August 07 2018

How Much Exercise Do Kids Need? Plus, 30 Activities to Get Them Moving

By Mark Sisson
16 Comments

There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that kids aren’t getting enough physical activity.

Inadequate amounts of physical activity are a strong risk factor for obesity and metabolic dysfunction in kids.  It’s most likely causal, too, because as much as people question the usefulness of only exercising to lose weight, there’s no question that exercise and physical activity in general is important for preventing obesity from occurring. 

Kids are getting so obese that a new RCT came out showing metformin can help them lose weight and normalize metabolic biomarkers.

It’s not just that inadequate physical activity is destroying the physical vitality, body weight, and metabolic health of children. It’s also ruining their movement skills and general athleticism. I don’t work with kids directly, but I have many friends who do. And all of them, from gymnastics coaches to running coaches to basketball/base/football coaches report that the athleticism of the beginners has degraded over the years. Fewer kids are coming into practice for the first time with that raw movement ability. They’re clumsier, clunkier, and more confused than ever before.

Childhood is a big window, but it’s a crucial one. All that time spent throwing a ball—or sitting on the couch manipulating an Xbox controller so that the character onscreen throws a ball—establishes neural pathways. Do you want those pathways to enable efficient, competent throwing (a skill that may have required our big brains and allowed humans to conquer the world), or do you want those pathways to enable skillful button and joystick maneuvering?

The good news is that kids love to move. Even the ones who don’t look it. Go down to a park, the beach, or walk through the city square on a hot day when the fountains are flowing and kids of all shapes and sizes will be moving frequently at slow, moderate, and fast paces. They’re playing tag. They’re roughhousing. They’re jumping from ledges twice their height. They’re all over the place.

And that’s how it works: Get even the most screen-obsessed kid in a fun, physical environment with plenty of opportunities for movement and he or she will move. The innate desire for physicality and play exists in all children.

Overweight kids aren’t too far gone either, and exercise can work wonders. According to a 2015 meta-analysis, there’s “moderate” evidence that exercise by itself is an effective way to reduce bodyweight in overweight and obese children. Another study concluded that strength training and aerobic exercise are more effective at lowering children’s BMI than either alone. I imagine you could optimize a kid’s training regimen even further and get even better results.

How Much Exercise Do Kids Need?

Ethnographic studies have found that, by and large, kids in hunter-gatherer groups play all day long with little to no supervision (PDF). They don’t have scooters and Laser Tag, or barbells and kettlebells, but they also don’t have smartphones and televisions. For these kids, play is movement and movement is play. There’s no other way. Of course, contemporary hunter-gatherer groups are a very rough approximation of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The former have been pushed onto marginalized land by better-armed and more numerous city folk; the latter ranged across an untouched world teeming with large game. Even still, they’re the best model we have for ancestral childhood physical activity.

But we don’t even have to go back to the paleolithic to illustrate the amount of physical activity the average kid should be getting. Just talk to an elderly neighbor. Talk to an older colleague. Or heck, search within your own memory bank. What were summers like as a kid for you? I for one was out all day long if school was out, exploring the neighborhood, roaming the woods, getting into trouble. And I rarely stopped moving.

Anecdotes and personal memories not enough? The data tells the same story. The parents of today’s children got over 8 hours a week of outdoor play (which is still too little). Today’s children get under four. That trend is likely to continue as you go back in time, with outdoor play doubling in frequency and lack of supervision with each previous generation.

These are averages, of course. Some kids get quite a lot. Others don’t.

Kids in Denmark aged 6-12 average 90 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day. It’s highest in the six-year-olds and declines by 3.5 minutes each year.

Elementary school kids in Qatar average around 28 minutes of MVPA per day, with a large discrepancy along gender lines. By age 9, for example, boys are getting over 40 minutes a day and girls are getting just 23 minutes.

Even the Danes aren’t doing enough, in my book.

Kids should be moving all day. I won’t mince words. Look, my kids probably could have moved more, and I knew about this stuff. It’s hard. I get it. But that doesn’t negate that the ideal situation is for kids to be constantly moving. After all, kids have fatigue-resistant muscles akin to elite athletes’. That’s why they can run all day without getting tired, and that’s a fairly strong indicator they’re meant to move all day.

That’s not in the cards, though, so what should kids aim for?

To stave off overweight/obesity, 60 minutes of MVPA (moderate-to-vigorous physical activity) with at least 15 minutes of genuinely vigorous physical activity each day is the absolute minimum. That’s not optimal. That’s barebones.

Kids should be:

  • Swimming
  • Running (sprinting rather than jogging)
  • Squatting (the movement pattern more than heavy weight)
  • Lifting/hip hingeing
  • Climbing
  • Throwing
  • Supporting their own bodyweight
  • Jumping
  • Landing
  • Balancing
  • Playing, ideally using all the skills and movements I just mentioned

Ideas To Get Kids Moving

What are some ideas? How can we get kids to get enough exercise while having fun and developing skill? Many need a little nudge. There are innumerable ways to unlock what’s already inside. I’ll throw out 30 of them right here.

  1. Walk to School. If you can make it work, walking to and from school will contribute a good amount of MVPA to a kid’s life. Extra points for getting into trouble on the way.
  2. Swim underwater as far as you can.
  3. Dive for Objects. Give kids a goal, make it a game. Throw a handful of quarters into the pool; see if they can get them all in with one breath. Toss a kettlebell into the deep end and have them bring it back up.
  4. Biggest Splash Contest. Who can make the biggest splash into the pool? Encourage different dives, cannonballs, jackknives, and other jumps.
  5. Water Polo. An excellent training stimulus. One of the hardest sports around.
  6. Lift Weights. Real ones. In Germany, 11-year-old soccer players and 12-year-old Olympic weightlifters are safely front squatting their bodyweight.
  7. Race the Dog (with a Head Start). Tell your kid to make a break for it, hold your dog for a few seconds, then release.
  8. Play Catch. Great way to practice throwing and catching, the latter of which is particularly tricky (and useful to learn).
  9. Barefoot Hike. Your kid will thank you when she’s all grown up and thinks nothing of walking across gravel.
  10. Creek Walk. Jump from rock to rock, climb over logs, balance on fallen trees, take a little dip.
  11. Check Out the local rec center schedule. You’d be surprised at the quality of some of these classes. Gymnastics, dance, martial arts are all good options for building good movement skills.
  12. Get a pullup bar in the house. Place it at a level your kid can reach. Start with hanging, swinging, and various holds, but work your way up to pullups. Give incentives (“do 5 pullups and I’ll give you $20”).
  13. Get the dog they’ve always wanted, with the stipulation being they have to walk it and play with it.
  14. Set up an obstacle course. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just give them things to climb under/over, crawl under/through/, leap over.
  15. Hill Sprints. If you want a killer workout, sling that kid over your shoulder in between his sprints and run some of your own.
  16. Gymnastics. Great foundation for movement later in life. Just stop short of elite competition unless it’s something they really want to commit to.
  17. Have them race. If you catch kids at the right age, they love races without being attached to the outcome. They’ll just let it rip and go all out, all smiles. Winner and loser both have fun.
  18. Roughhouse. Roughhousing is a lost art that helps kids establish boundaries and limits, learn what hurts and what doesn’t, grasp when something is “too rough.” Plus, it’s fun.
  19. Try Parkour. Parkour isn’t something a seven year old just leaps into (go to a parkour gym for formal instruction),but they can certainly start playing around on manmade structures. Visit a business park for good climbing and play.
  20. Animal Impersonations. Crawl like a bear. Hop like a rabbit. Leap like a frog. Slither like a snake. Walk like a duck. These are very difficult modes of transportation that make for great exercise. To keep things fresh and playful, come up with other animals to emulate.
  21. Play Fetch. Throw the ball, they go chase it and bring it back. Same concept as running your dog.
  22. Reverse Box Jumps. That cool Persian tot aside, it makes more sense for small children to practice jumping down from tall objects than trying to jump up them. Besides, landing is where the danger lies later.
  23. Trampoline. Studies indicate they’re responsible for a large number of emergency visits, but a properly set-up trampoline enclosed by a protective net can be a great place to learn how to jump with good form. And again, fun.
  24. Keep a scooter/bike/skateboard around. Kids love zooming around on wheels.
  25. Chore Duty. Give them a standing order to help with bags/groceries/trash. There’s always something they can carry, and every little bit helps make them stronger and more resilient.
  26. Kettlebell Challenge. Keep a kettlebell in the living room and have him or her lift it every day. Marvel at the perfect deadlift form.
  27. Build forts, then destroy them.
  28. Try conventional sports. Although specialization isn’t advised at such an early age (it can actually increase the risk of overuse injuries and inhibit the athletic growth of children), sports are fun and do offer a great path to overall athletic development.
  29. Build up to a mile run. Start by walking it. Throw in some quick sprints in the middle. Then a full on mile run. Then unleash the offer: “I’ll give you [x] if you can run a mile in [x-amount of time].”
  30. Set a good example. If you fail to embrace physical culture while demanding your child do the opposite, that’s a strong nudge in the wrong direction. Make sure you’re moving, too.

That’s it for today, folks. I’d love to hear from you.

What kinds of games, sports, and other activities do you use to increase your children’s physical activity and help them develop a positive relationship with exercise? What’s worked, what hasn’t, and what’s the most unconventional activity you’ve had success with?

Take care all.

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16 thoughts on “How Much Exercise Do Kids Need? Plus, 30 Activities to Get Them Moving”

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  1. I read this article and am dumbfounded. Then I realize how lucky we are that we HomeSchool our 2 girls (9 &6). They spend about 5-8 hours a day outside. I also built them an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course.

    1. I had to read this twice… my boys are 9 & 11… Homeschooled and ninjas too! Make it fun and you have to bribe them to come in.

      My boys also do a lot of other movement… some involves heaving lifting. If they want any screen time, they have to earn it.

  2. With regard to #6: My 12 year old has been lifting heavily since he was 6 with no ill effects (Currently over double bodyweight for squat and deadlift). If kids like sports and are motivated to get stronger, I think weightlifting (or powerlifting) is a fantastic way to help them get going on a lifetime of fitness and health.

  3. I’m a big fan of the family walk. Every Sunday, once I’ve finished my work, I dig out the map. Having located a nice village and even better pub, we plot a three/four mile walk. Sure they moan some, but they’ve been doing it since they were six so now they just crack on

    I include my wife in that last statement!

  4. When we grew up a bike were our freedom. We rode bikes everywhere. To school, to friends home across town, to parks to play pick-up ball games. There was one family car, and one parent used it to get to work and one stayed home. The stay home parent made us do house work and yard work if we hung around, so we made ourselves scarce. We did most everything on the above list without a thought.. Modern conveniences have turned humans into slugs.

  5. I’m pretty skeptical of the claim that “athleticism of the beginners has degraded over the years” and even more so that you would somehow be able to attribute the apparent degradation to inadequate physical activity prior to engaging in said activity. Kids are human. Humans have a range of athletic abilities due to a variety of factors some genetic, some environmental. After all, some of those clumsy, clunky, confused kids grow up to be world champions, no?

    1. I’m a teacher, close to retirement. In the last 10 years I’ve been seeing many five year olds who don’t have the muscle strength to hold a pencil, or to sit upright on a stool.

  6. Need to reinstitute mandatory daily physical fitness in all public schools. (No opt out clauses for any reason.) The more fit kids are, the better they do in school.
    50-60 years ago coach Stan LeProtti led the famed PE program at La Sierra high school. Those students left high school in top physical shape with an reaped benefits from that program for the rest of their adult lives.

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/62991/1960s-high-school-gym-class-would-ruin-you

    http://motivationmovie.com/

  7. I think kids need less structured and supervised time. They need to have play that lets them make things up, figure out how things work, and interact on their own. Big groups, though, are not good for this sort of freedom, as kids can form gangs, and get mean…

  8. What about Capture the Flag, dodgeball, tag, kickball, or all those other kid games? Or can’t enough kids get together anymore in these days of supervised play dates? We had stilts, pogo sticks, skates, bikes, trikes, and jump ropes, but I suppose non-free-range kids can’t be let out on their own with those things. I feel sorry for modern kids.

  9. It helps to have fitness equipment in the house. We have a home gym with a power rack, barbells, BOSU ball, ropes, gymnastic rings etc. and our kids love to use it. Plus they watch us work out and often join us. I’ve even done pullup contests with our 6-year old 🙂

    Encouragement is a big factor too. Allow your kids to climb trees, motivate them to try new things etc. Yes, they might fall down and you should explain to them what is okay and what not but over time they’ll develop a pretty good assessment of how far they can go.

    What works well is a mix of structured training (in our case gymnastics, swimming, alpine ski racing) and offering many opportunities for unstructured play.

  10. So many great suggestions here! My kids are now young adults and both pretty fit. I definitely took advantage of group activities (starting with gymboree, then gymnastics, soccer, etc) but also just spend tons of time outside with them. Made plans to meet friends at playgrounds. Went to the pool every chance we got. Took our dog on long walks. Even parked the car far away when shopping…every little bit to keep them moving. As a parent you are setting an example with everything you do.

  11. I’m the parent at the top of the playground! May as well use play as opportunity for more reps!

    Last month I was clotheslined by monkey bars and left with a broken nose, mangled face and concussion. My wife told me to, “play with kids your own age”. Never too old to climb at the park!

  12. Looks like I’m going to have be the voice of dissent here, call me the curmudgeon.

    Multiple studies show that if you make kids “exercise” at school, they burn about the same number of calories per day as those kids who do not (who go home and go crazy, while the kids who exercise go home and become couch potatoes).

    This has also been shown via testing of hunter-gatherers:

    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0040503

    For myself, I gained about 100+ pounds while exercising (usually rode 1-2 centuries in the summer and many 60+ mile bike rides), exercised 3-4+ days per week. It wasn’t until I lowered carbs that I started losing weight.

    For our kids, while we do encourage their going outside, the primary thing that causes weight loss is a low carb diet. If we can restrict their snacks and carbs, they lose weight; if we can’t, they don’t. Exercise is not a factor in this.

    Moreover, they have so many after-school events (dance class, karate, acting, Odyssey of the Mind, school shows, you name it) that they have no more time for more exercise. We need them to play (and of course play can involve exercise). Again, though, it matters not what they do, as their weight is directly related to carb intake, NOT to the amount of exercise they do.

    Furthermore, how many kids with injuries do you see? I know multiple children who get knee injuries, shoulder injuries, concussions, etc. Sports are dangerous. I myself have two torn rotator cuffs (former bodybuilder), back injuries, and many other injuries from biking, lifting, football, dance classes/tennis, etc. Personally, if my kids asked me whether they should be in the band or the school play or play sports, I would recommend the former two and not the latter.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts and hopefully I have not angered anyone by saying them.

    1. I think you make a good point about organized sports. However, we all need more generalized movement in a day that need not be called “exercise.” I walk my kids to and from school and then I serve their snack outside so that they just stay outside for the remainder of the afternoon until dinner time. If I get them started with a game of chase around the yard or hide and seek, they’ll often take over the games on their own and start climbing the trees. I just quietly step out of the way and let them do their thing until dinner is ready. Certain words in our house warrant a 5-burpee penalty, so you likely won’t hear dumb, stupid, annoying or duh! between the siblings these days. Second offense in a week is 10-burpees. They get the idea. We all forget sometimes. I’ll slip it in sometimes just so that they can be excited that mom has to do burpees because the cat was running off with our dinner, causing some choice words to slip out.

      Basically, short of homework duties, I refuse to let my kids sit in front of devices, regardless of the weather, on school days when they have likely done enough sitting. I turn off all devices, because hypocrisy on that front makes me insane. I can’t keep checking my email when I tell them not to be drawn to the shiny-flashy-flashy.

      I also don’t limit/monitor their carbs. We talk about them and how we need lots of variety in our diets, but I try to only have food in our house that I want them to eat. They haven’t had weight problems and they get a lot of exercise in the way of running around, trampoline, martial arts and swim.

  13. It’s a modern day truth that the kids loved to follow electronic gadgets to play video games and other Internet activities rather engage with physical activities. Due to this they are not so physically strong and suffering from obesity and metabolic dysfunctions health problems. Regarding this topic, your post seems very informational and helpful. Thanks for sharing this post.