Children exercising is a necessity for development, but there are limits

To grow into healthy adults, children need lots of exercise. The best kind is when they are playing freely – even better when it is with their parents. Shutterstock

Play, or what scientists like to call informal physical activity, serves an extremely important role in the physical, social and cognitive or intellectual development of children.

Play is so important to the optimal development of a child that it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a right. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world around them.

That is why children should be encouraged to take part in active play or unstructured physical activity as often as possible.

Children are playing less

The association between exercise/physical activity and health is well documented. Globally, research shows a trend in which children are increasingly becoming less active. This has led to a rise in lifestyle diseases, known as hypokinetic diseases, in children.

Some of these traits, such as atherosclerosis, hypertension and obesity are shown to track into adulthood. Statistics from the World Health Organisation show that Africa has the fastest growing rates of overweight and obese people.

There are various factors that have contributed to the trend of lower levels of physical activity.

One of the biggest contributing factors is that children often prefer to use their free time engaging in sedentary activities such as computer, handheld and console games, or watching television. Frequently, they would choose these type of activities ahead of playing sport outside.

What’s optimal

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that pre-school children should get at least two hours of physical activity per day. This should be divided between structured physical activity and unstructured free-play settings.

To get maximum benefit out of exercise, certain principles should be followed. For example, the overload principle suggests that to achieve progress and get fitter an individual has to do more than they are accustomed to.

But there is no single activity recommended for children. Rather, they should take part in a variety of outdoor and sporting activities without specialising in one code of sport too early.

For most sports, intense training to the exclusion of others should be delayed until adolescence. Intense training and exercising in children can lead to injuries, psychological stress, burn out and quitting sports at a young age. All of which is counter-productive in creating a life-long commitment to being physically active and following a healthy lifestyle.

And what about weights?

For years, resistance training in children was frowned on due to safety and efficacy concerns. Resistance or weight training is a type of exercise that works to primarily increase muscle strength and endurance by doing repetitive exercise with weights, weight machines or some other form of resistance.

There were concerns that resistance training may negatively affect a child’s growth by damaging their bone growth plates. These concerns are unwarranted as they are not supported by scientific research. But it is essential that children’s resistance training programmes are individualised due to the fact that children mature at slightly different rates.

Current research literature supports and encourages the use of supervised and appropriate resistance training in children. The benefits are numerous and are not limited to increasing muscle strength and endurance. These include:

  • Strengthening bones by positively influencing bone mineral density;

  • Better body composition by increasing muscle component and decreasing fat; and

  • A significant decrease in the risk of injuries in sports and recreational activities.

Kids copy their parents

Most children are naturally physically active, and need opportunities to be active and to learn skills. It has been shown that they are more likely to engage in moderately vigorous physical activity in unstructured play where they are free to interact with their peers.

They are also influenced by their parents. Parent behaviours, attitudes, parenting styles and practices have a profound influence on children’s health behaviour. Part of the solution is for parents to be models of the behaviour they wish their children to follow.