When we talk about physical activity for children and adolescents, many think about special and expensive activities, special equipment or grueling training. There’s nothing wrong with that, on the contrary, but this picture does not reflect the many possibilities to stay active at an early age.
It is not only special activities at organized institutions (such as classes, practices and sport teams) that count as part of the recommended daily activity for children aged 5-17, but also active play time or walking, with the family, in the community, at school and in different locations such as the playground, the park, the beach or a gym.
International organizations and the 2019 position paper of the Israel Medical Association, "Physical Activity and Sports in Children and Adolescents", stated that “in the last few decades, it has been scientifically and decisively proven that engaging in regular physical activity at a young age and throughout childhood and adolescence is important for normal development, both physically and cognitively”. It is important to make physical activity accessible to all children, regardless of their place of residence, socioeconomic status or demographic background.
The benefits of physical activity for children and adolescents
- Developing the musculoskeletal system (e.g. bones, muscles and joints)
- Developing a healthy cardiovascular system (e.g., myocardium and lungs)
- Developing nervous system alertness (e.g., coordination and movement control)
- Maintaining healthy body weight and fat percentage
- Reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases
In addition, exercise has been associated with positive effects on psychological and social aspects of young people, as well as reducing recurrence of symptoms typical of anxiety or depression. Similarly, exercising can help develop social skills, by developing self-expression capabilities, building self-confidence, social development and integration. Perhaps as a result of all these positive effects, it was found that physically active children and adolescents consumed less tobacco, alcohol and drug products as well as being more likely to succeed in school.
How much time should children spend exercising?
According to the World Health Organization's recommendations in 2020 and similar recommendations in the 2019 position paper of the Israel Medical Association, in order to improve fitness, cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, bone health and other measures among children 6-18 years old, it is recommended to:
- Accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to intensive activity daily.
- Dedicate most of the time of physical activity to aerobic exercise. Intensive activities should be incorporated between those that strengthen the muscles and bones, on three days at least every week.
- Exercise more than 60 minutes a day as this involves additional health benefits (detailed below).
Distinctions between the different types of activities
- Moderate aerobic activity: causes more intense breathing and higher heart rate. You will still be able to speak, but not sing!
- Vigorous intensity activity: cardio activity that causes accelerated heart rate and heavy breathing, making it difficult to complete an entire sentence without the need to stop to breath.
- “Strength” activities: builds and strengthens muscles. When performing muscle strengthening actions, the muscles are pushed and pulled on the bone, helping to strengthen the bone.
Types of physical activity
- Aerobic exercise: running, skipping, jumping, activities that require swift changes of direction
- Strength: work with weights or against the body weight (like yoga) or use fitness utensils (that are age-appropriate, with the supervision of an adult or a professional)
- Child games: catch, motion games
- Outdoor games: climbing (a rope/wall), using playground/sport facilities
- Ball games: soccer, basketball, volleyball, dodgeball, tennis, paddle ball, table tennis
- Riding: bicycle, skateboard, rollerblades, non-motorized scooter
- Swimming and marine sports: swimming, windsurfing, wave surfing
- Gymnastics: floor exercises, acrobatics, athletics
- Classes: dancing, martial arts, "ninja" obstacle course, yoga. For adolescents: functional training, Tabata, internals, aerobic exercise, kickboxing, zumba, pilates
- Computer and console games: video or console games with motion, such as Just Dance
Israel Medical Association (2019). "Physical Activity and Sports in Children and Adolescents", page 4
Ministry of Educaton, Pedagogical Administration: Preschool Education, Pedagogical Secretariat: Physical Education (2016). "In Kindergarten, We Play on". Jerusalem.
CDC Physical Activity Guidelines for School-Aged Children and Adolescents (2018)
Australian guidance on physical activity for children and young people, 5-17 years old (2019)