The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Are we boring our children into inactivity?

Posted in
Move more

Tuesday, Feb 14, 2012

I have a son and a daughter who are, nicely put, extremely active (wild and crazy!).  For instance, my son who is 3 is already riding his bike without training wheels and my daughter (now 14 months) at 11 months decided to climb out of her crib. They keep me on my toes for sure. I am a pretty “hands-off” parent letting them climb and jump (and fall) but there are times that I worry about safety and if certain activities or ways in which they are playing are too risky. Recently we were at the park and my son wanted to slide down the fireman’s pole. It is a pretty high pole and this is not something that I have ever seen him do or try before. Everything in me wanted to place my hands on him to guide him down the pole but a recent research article popped into my head.

The study that came to mind set out to identify barriers that might be preventing children from obtaining adequate amounts of physical activity (1). Specifically they looked at children in child care settings. Seventy-five percent of US children aged 3 to 5 years are in child care and epidemiologic evidence suggest that they are not getting enough physical activity. As a matter of fact some estimates are that they are sedentary 70-83% of the time even when you exclude meals and nap time. This is of concern because daily physical activity not only is essential for good health and healthy weight maintenance, but also for practicing and learning fundamental gross motor skills and socioemotional and cognitive skills. Studies have shown positive effects on alertness, memory, and mental health, such as increases in self–esteem and reductions in anxiety and stress, which actually helps children to learn more. In addition, this may be the only opportunity for play because they are in child care for such long hours. One of the main barriers discovered was societal focus on safety and injury potential. This focus has led to strict licensing codes of playground equipment, so strict that many believe this is leading to unchallenging equipment and thus uninterested, less active children. In addition, parental concerns about injury appear to be influencing physical activity practices. Physical activity is not being seen as of value by parents. They view academics as more important so couple this with their concern about injuries and child care settings are not providing the opportunities for play or letting them participate in the types of play that they should.

So with this in mind, I pulled my hands away (although stayed really close just in case) and let him go. And what do you know? He came down just fine. His first attempt was quite slow and “choppy.” It was more of a “stop and go”, “stop and go” lowering.  But after one or two more attempts he was whizzing down that thing like he had been doing it all his life. He learned how to apply just enough force to control his body but still be able to slide. And now, thinking about this particular playground in light of this study, I realize the pole was appealing to him because everything else he has mastered. He needed the challenge and developed a new motor skill in the process all while having fun.

This study suggests that we need to create a better balance between injury prevention and physical activity promotion especially at this young age because for many, sedentary habits are already established by the time they are ready for school. As a reminder:

Children and adolescents should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of physical activity daily.

  • Aerobic: Most of the 60 or more minutes a day should be either moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, and should include vigorous-intensity physical activity at least 3 days a week.
  • Muscle-strengthening: As part of their 60 or more minutes of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include muscle-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days of the week.
  • Bone-strengthening: As part of their 60 or more minutes of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include bone-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days of the week.
It is important to encourage young people to participate in physical activities that are appropriate for their age, that offer variety, and are fun! Here are some examples:

Moderate-intensity aerobic

  • Bicycle riding
  • Skateboarding
  • Brisk walking
  • Games that require catching and throwing, such as baseball and softball
Vigorous- intensity aerobic
  • Active games involving running and chasing, such as tag
  • Bicycle riding
  • Jumping rope
  • Sports such as soccer, ice or field hockey, basketball, swimming, tennis
  • Games such as tug-of-war
  • Rope or tree climbing
  • Swinging on playground equipment/bars
  • Climbing wall
  • Games such as hopscotch
  • Hopping, skipping, jumping
  • Jumping rope
  • Running
Let’s do our best to keep physical activity challenging and fun and a part of our children’s lives!

1. Copeland KA, Sherman SN, Kendeigh CA, Kalkwarf HJ, and Saelens BE. Societal values and policies may curtail preschool children’s physical activity in child care centers. Pediatrics. 2012; 129(2): 265-74.