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Just Ask Children's

Getting Kids Physically Active

A boy in a blue soccer jersey and black shorts kicks an orange ball in a grassy field.

From Independence Day to the dog days, summer is a time for vacations, cookouts, campouts and outdoor activities with the whole family. Getting out and active is one the best ways to keep your family physically and mentally healthy. And with more than one in six kids in the U.S. experiencing obesity, it’s now more important to cultivate an active lifestyle.

Our Clinical Exercise Physiology team answers parent’s top questions on how to get your family out and active — and stay safe while you’re at it.

Unfortunately, they do not. Persistent cuts in curriculum have led to less and less physical education for kids all over the nation. In fact, here in Colorado, there’s no requirement for physical education in schools at all. Most kids in elementary school don’t have a daily gym class, and since it’s an elective in middle and high school, kids might opt out entirely.

As for recess, periods vary from district to district, but they’re rarely longer than 20 minutes (and are often less).

Both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend kids get at least one hour of aerobic activity every day. This means activity that increases breathing and heart rate, like walking or swimming — including activity vigorous enough to get your child sweating and breathing hard at least three days a week. Gym class isn’t going to meet that standard, or even really come close. 

People often think of exercise as a scheduled, intense activity that has to be done in a single chunk. Not necessarily. Kids don’t have to do that hour a day of physical activity all at once. And if an hour isn’t possible, some activity is much better than none. Just walking briskly or taking the stairs, for instance, are great for health.

In fact, there are a lot of ways to work activity into existing routines. Try walking or biking to school with your kids, or if the school is too far, park a few blocks from the building and walk the rest of the way. You can also do activities in short bursts — a few push-ups, sit-ups or jumping jacks, even during commercial breaks while watching TV.

And speaking of TV, it’s best, when possible, to limit kids’ access screens like computers, tablets and televisions and instead try to use that family downtime for getting active. Try heading outside for a walk or kicking a soccer ball around. Before long, physical activity will work its way into the fabric of your family’s life.

Healthy habits take a lot of effort to cultivate — and unhealthy ones a lot of effort to break. Some families find it helpful to sign a formal Commitment to a Healthy Life and post it as a reminder on the fridge.

Anyone who’s ever gone for a walk to shake off a hard day knows that a little exercise can do wonders for a bad mood. The fact is, when we work our muscles it makes us feel good, and studies increasingly show the mental health benefits of physical activity in the short and long term. The same is true for kids.

Research also shows that children who get even 20 minutes of moderate physical activity in their day show increased attention, comprehension and learning ability over children who don’t — meaning exercise can even help kids in school.

Believe it or not, the benefits of exercise can be pretty immediate. Even a short, brisk walk can improve your mood. One mistake people often make is that they start out too hard. Going for a run when you’re not used to physical activity can feel unpleasant. There’s nothing fun about straining your muscles and struggling for breath. Many people see exercise as beneficial for one of its end results — weight loss — but they push it too hard in an effort to reach the goal quickly and give up when it doesn’t happen.

For both kids and adults, some exercise is always better than none — so even five minutes of light exercise has benefits. Take it easy. Get outside with your kids and walk around the neighborhood or toss a Frisbee. Visit the neighborhood pool. Do something easy and fun, and in time, your kids — and you — may be breaking a sweat not because it’s ‘good for you,’ but because you’re genuinely having a good time.

Although sunscreen and protective clothing do block vitamin D absorption from sunlight, the risks of going without it — such as skin cancer — far outweigh the rewards. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen and sun-protective measures at all times outdoors, even going so far as to say, in a position statement, that “vitamin D should not be obtained from unprotected exposure to UV radiation.”

Luckily, vitamin D occurs naturally in many food sources including salmon, tuna, swordfish, and eggs. In addition, many foods are fortified with it: milk, orange juice, and yogurt, to name a few. Ask your pediatrician if you’re concerned about your child’s vitamin D level. If he or she recommends vitamin D supplements, many are available over the counter and in kid-friendly forms like chewable gummies and liquid drops.

Be sensitive about how your child feels about his or her body, and try to take the focus off weight. Instead, put the focus on health, and most of all, set a good example by modeling good, healthy habits. For instance, work healthy eating and physical activity into daily routines, and make changes to the parts of your home life — like availability of junk food or screen time — that may be contributing to a child’s unhealthy weight.

Talk with your pediatrician about your concerns. In some cases, a pediatrician might recommend a service like Children’s Colorado’s Weight Management Clinic. Our clinic and others like it can help families target and change unhealthy lifestyle habits with individual counseling and an array of tools, including free exercise classes.

A study conducted by University College London found the children aged 8 to 11 who were allowed to play outside unsupervised were more active than children without the privilege. They also showed more confidence and self-reliance and enjoyed richer social lives.

Of course, there are risks to children playing outside without supervision. Recent polls suggest a majority of Americans think children face more threats to their safety than in previous generations, though these seem at odds with data showing crime at its lowest levels in nearly 40 years. Either way, skyrocketing childhood obesity rates suggest children would do well to spend as much time playing outside as possible.

In the end, every parent is the best judge of whether a child is mature enough to negotiate the risks — like traffic safety and, yes, even stranger danger — of playing outside alone. And if you don’t feel comfortable, that’s all the more opportunity to spend time outdoors as a family.

Dehydration happens when a body loses more water than it takes in. The severity of dehydration can range from mild to life-threatening if left unchecked. Generally it starts with muscle cramps, but it can eventually produce nausea, vomiting, faintness, rapid heartbeat and, at its most severe, very high body temperature and collapse.

The good news is that it’s fairly easy to keep in check. The key is to drink plenty of water. Don’t wait for your child to tell you he or she is thirsty. Ideally, make sure your child starts drinking plenty of water about 30 minutes before an activity and then every 15 to 20 minutes during active play. Kids will know if they’re drinking enough water if their urine is clear or no darker than lemonade.

Ticks are small spiderlike animals (arachnids). Here in Colorado there are about 30 species of ticks. Most tick bites are harmless and don't require medical treatment, although some ticks can carry harmful germs and cause diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease (only about 2% of ticks carry Lyme disease, which is most heavily concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest). Adults ticks are about the size of watermelon seeds and may be easy to spot, but ticks in the nymph stage, about the size of poppy seeds, can easily go undetected, especially since the bites don’t hurt or itch. 

Ticks generally live in the same places as the animals they feed on — in a carpet of leaves or in tall grass.  Ticks need to ingest a blood meal to transform to their next stage of development and they do this by perching in tall grass and waiting for a susceptible host to attach themselves to and feed. When outdoors, it’s a good idea to have your kids avoid playing in tall grass, especially during spring and early summer, when ticks are most active. On hikes, stay close to the center of the trail.

If you do find a tick, remove it as soon as possible. Call a doctor if you can’t remove it, if the bite produces a rash or fever, or if it looks infected.

- Dr. Alison Brent

Sure — with supervision. The best way to get kids out and active is to encourage them to do things they like to do. If your kid likes to ride a scooter, let him ride a scooter. If she likes to climb trees, let her climb trees. Climbing has its risks, of course, but so do scooters, and as long as you’re around to supervise, you can mitigate those risks. Plus, climbing is great for both fine and gross motor skills, muscle development, and coordination. And don’t underestimate the importance of what the American Academy of Pediatrics calls “vitamin N:” the benefits of time spent in nature. 

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