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Importance of physical activity By: Dr. Maria Quejada, MD, Oak Creek Pediatrics

Let’s get physical! The many benefits of creating lifelong, healthy habits

Above all else, parents are tasked with keeping their kids safe and healthy. So we make sure they are eating well, getting a good night’s sleep, seeing their doctor, bathing regularly, brushing their teeth, and on and on. But one thing that should be added to this list is making sure they are getting enough physical activity in a day. 

Physical activity is just as important as any of the other items I listed. Not only is it good for your child’s bones, muscles and overall development, physical activity has many mental health benefits as well. 

Physical activity should start young and be continued throughout life. Here are a few ways I talk to families about incorporating physical activity as a lifelong habit. Good news! You don’t need a gym membership or tons of equipment and it can be fun!

First, it’s important to understand a few of the benefits of physical activity. Then I’ll get into how to incorporate physical activity into your child’s day. 

Heart health

Encouraging physical activity from a young age can help protect against heart disease that many adults — and, sadly, some kids — face. Physical activity promotes cardiovascular endurance, which helps maintain proper blood pressure. It can also raise our “good” cholesterol, known as HDL (high-density lipoproteins). HDL helps remove excess fats from the bloodstream, which helps overall heart health. So getting into a regular routine of physical activity from an early age will set up healthy habits for years to come. 

Reduce stress

Our kids are stressed. From school pressure to social media influences, many kids experience stress. Getting exercise raises serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is the happiness hormone, so boosting it can lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression. In essence, exercise makes you happier all around. 

Additionally, unmanaged stress can cause muscle tightness, which can contribute to other issues, including stomachaches, headaches and other types of discomfort. Recognizing these health issues as potentially stemming from stress can help your kids understand how to resolve them. Exercise is an excellent way to control stress. Actually, physically active kids are less likely to experience stress-related symptoms than their more sedentary peers. 

However, parents need to keep an eye on their kids' mental well-being. If it seems like something else is going on, talk to your child’s pediatrician about mental and behavioral health resources that can help your family.

Build strong, healthy muscles 

Regular exercise helps build strong, healthy muscles. Strong muscles help protect joints, which helps protect against injury. When kids get injured, it can lead to missed school and other activities while they heal.

Better sleep

Remember when your kids were pretty young and you would take them to the park or let them run around outside to tire them out for their nap? Well, the same principle applies here for older kids. Activity increases your sleep drive. It makes it easier to fall asleep at night. 

Maintain proper weight

Physical activity can help kids maintain a healthy weight over time. It is a balance between choosing healthy foods and exercising. Setting healthy habits like making healthy food choices and getting moderate exercise will position your kids well for lifelong health. 

How do I start? 

So, now that we’ve talked about a few of the benefits of establishing physical activity as a lifelong habit, we need to look at how to do this. Good news! It doesn’t require a ton of time or fancy equipment, and it can be incorporated into your day as you would any other daily habit.

Kids should aim for about 30 minutes a day. You may be thinking that with everything else going on in your day, where will you find the time to squeeze in exercise?

  • Think small. If your kids are watching a show while you are preparing a meal, everyone can do a little something at the commercial break. Try jumping jacks or sit ups. Make a game out of it.

  • Sign your kids up for sports. Youth sports are a great way to get kids moving and they have other benefits as well. In addition to being active in practice and competition, kids learn teamwork starting from a young age.

  • Have a dog or animal that needs walking? Let your kids help, too. It gets your kids moving and also teaches responsibility. Walking is a great way to start an exercise habit and it costs nothing. Getting outside also has mental health benefits, too.

  • Lead by example. If you make exercise a priority, kids will see that and want to emulate what they see. When parents and caregivers incorporate healthy choices like physical activity into their life, it’s a great way to encourage your kids to create healthy habits of their own.

  • Make it fun. Find fun activities. Turn on music. Dance. Anything to get the wiggles out and the blood pumping. If you have more time, take a walk through the zoo or, in colder weather, a museum. Ride a bike. Jump rope. Go to the playground and play ball. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t seem like a chore.

Developing healthy habits young will help kids as they become adults. Before your child starts any exercise program, check with your child’s pediatrician to make sure you’re starting with safe practices. You don’t have to do high amounts of activity or intense workouts to get the benefits of exercise. Benefits start to accumulate with any amount of exercise. So get out there and start moving!