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Physical activity needs of children and youth

Children of all ages benefit from physical activity in their lives. The type and amount of activity they need changes as they grow.

For healthy growth and development, infants and preschoolers should be active several times during the day. All activity such as:

  • tummy time on the floor reaching for toys
  • rolling
  • crawling
  • climbing stairs
  • running
  • biking

will help them to increase their fitness, have fun, feel happy, develop self-confidence and improve their learning and attention.

For health benefits, children and teens should accumulate 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily. This should include:

  • Vigorous-intensity activities at least 3 days per week.
  • Activities that strengthen muscle and bone at least 3 days per week.
  • More daily physical activity provides greater health benefits.

Children are naturally energetic, but without encouragement, they may become inactive. These days, many children spend more and more time sitting – in class, on a school bus, using the computer, playing video games, or watching TV. As a result, more than half of Canadian children aren’t active enough for their health and development.

Be a good role model

It’s up to you as a parent to keep your kids active. One way is by being a good role model. If your children see you make physical activity a priority, they will take note. Research shows that active parents have active children. Here are some ways you can get them active:

  • Encourage your kids to walk, bike, rollerblade or skateboard to school.
  • Enroll them in fitness activities at your local community centre such as badminton, basketball or swimming.
  • On the weekends, get the neighbours together for a game of pick-up hockey or baseball.

Keep them moving

Physical activity strengthens their hearts and helps kids and teens maintain a healthy weight and healthy blood pressure, which may lower their risk of developing heart disease and stroke as they age. It’s beneficial to start early, as active kids are more likely to become fit adults.

For health benefits, children and teens should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily. This should include both vigorous-intensity activities at least 3 days per week and activities that strengthen muscle and bone at least 3 days per week.

Being active for at least 60 minutes every day can help children and teens:

  • Improve their health
  • Do better in school
  • Improve their fitness
  • Grow stronger
  • Have fun playing with friends
  • Feel happier
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Improve their self-confidence
  • Learn new skills

Reduce sitting time

For health benefits, children 5 to 17 years of age need to reduce the time they spend sitting every day. This may be achieved by limiting recreational screen time including TVs and computers to no more than two hours a day. Try reducing the time your kids sit in cars or on school buses as well as limiting the time they spend sitting or being indoors for extended periods.  It’s not a matter of trying to fit something else into their busy day. Instead, you simply need to encourage your children to trade some inactive time in front of a computer or sitting on a bus for other choice activities such as dancing to music or walking to school.

Read more about the Canadian Sedentary Guidelines for Children and Youth 

Unstructured activities are good for kids

Organized sports can be valuable, but they’re not the only solution. Not all children and teens like competition. As well, unorganized sport and unstructured activity have been shown to be especially beneficial in preventing children from becoming overweight, perhaps because the emphasis is not on winning but on fun, which may encourage participation.

Here are some ideas for unstructured activities:

  • Playing tag
  • Pick-up games of ice or ball hockey
  • Skipping rope
  • Tobogganing
  • Shovelling snow

Family activities may include:

  • Hiking in your local park or conservation area
  • Swimming at your local community centre pool
  • Playing frisbee, baseball or soccer in the backyard
  • Activities at the local community centre

One day at a time

Your kids don’t have to make the change all at once. They may start by being active 10 minutes a day, increasing the time each week until daily activity becomes part of their healthy lifestyle.  Children are naturally active so they may be doing some light or moderate activity already. Try increasing active periods by 10 minutes and reducing screen time by 10 minutes every few days to make being active a part of their daily routine.

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years 0-4  

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Children 5-11 years

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Youth 12-17 years  

Last reviewed: April 2012

Last modified: June 2012