Physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle and boasts many benefits. In combination with a healthy diet, regular physical activity can help prevent a range of chronic diseases later in life – including heart disease, cancer, and stroke – and helps control weight, builds lean muscle, promotes strong bone and joint development, and decreases the risk of obesity.
“Play keeps us fit physically and mentally.”
– Stuart Brown, MD
For children, it is also critical for proper brain and body development; physical education is crucial for the development of fundamental motor skills and movement patterns that will be the foundation for a child’s ability to move, dance, play sports and lead a healthy life at any age.
For children and adolescents, getting enough physical activity can also improve academic performance. Studies have found that children who are physically active are more focused and do better academically; physical fitness is also linked to improved test scores.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Shape America, children and adolescents should get a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity every day, most of which should be of moderate or vigorous-intensity* aerobic physical activity. The 60 minutes per day should also include muscle strengthening (such as weight lifting) and bone strengthening activities (such as running, hopscotch or jumping rope) at least three days per week. Pre K children need at least 120 minutes of physical activity a day.
Note: A person doing moderate-intensity aerobic activity can talk, but not sing, during the activity, and a person doing vigorous-intensity activity cannot say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.
There are a few key things worth noting for any age group:
- These are minimum requirements; more is suggested
- They are talking about across the entire day, not just the school day
- Sedentary time matters, too. 60 minutes a day does not mean playing 60 minutes of lacrosse or go to the playground for an hour and then be sedentary for 23 hours. Try to get children active at least 10 minutes every hour they are awake, even if it is just standing versus sitting.
- Attempt to incorporate multiple bouts of physical activity throughout the day; focus on fun.
- A lot of time spent “playing” organized sports or other physical activities are not actually time spent in motion. Only minutes that are active should go toward those minutes.
- Screen-time is a critical element that often gets ignored in this discussion. As we look for ways to help our students increase their physical activity time, we must also help them find strategies for decreasing their screen-time, which is approximately 5 hours a day and continuing to increase. Screen-time not only promotes sedentary behavior, but exposes children to unhealthy food and beverage advertising. This can make it hard to make healthy choices.
How Can We Help Students Be More Active?
The good news? For children, physical activity doesn’t have to mean going to the gym or something that becomes a chore for them. It can come in many forms, including recess and good old-fashioned outdoor play, which has multiple mental and behavioral health benefits as well! The key is to start early and to focus on fun and making it a normal part of their school day and lives, versus an add-on. Active play is physical activity, and children are inherently motivated to play.
Getting the appropriate amount of physical activity can be difficult. Certain strategies, such as incorporating physical activity into the school day and creating environments that encourage physical activity can help, as will working with families to incorporate physical activity time at home.
Opportunities to incorporate physical activity into the school day include:
- Mandatory recess
- Movement breaks in the classroom
- Getting a grant for adjustable standing desks or other environmental adjustments
- Physical Education classes taught by certified PE teachers
- Becoming a Let’s Move! Active School campus
- Addressing physical activity in school wellness policies
- Prohibiting denying recess as a form of discipline
- Promoting active learning via outdoor classrooms and school gardens
- Incorporating movement into classroom lessons
- Play-based after-school programs, activities and clubs
- Playground access after school
- Encouraging parents and caregivers to limit screen-time and promote active lifestyles at home
Strategies to Create School and Community Environments that Encourage Physical Activity include:
- Promote the expansion of walking and biking trails and improved safety for bicyclists and pedestrians in your community
- Create and maintain neighborhoods that are safe and free from crime to encourage outdoor physical activity
- Review school policies on walking and biking to school and recess
- Promote the adoption of state and local policies that encourage bicycling and public transportation
- Improve access to parks and playgrounds through joint-use agreements between cities and schools
- Participate in Screen Free Week each spring!