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Ages & Stages

Promoting Physical Activity as a Way of Life

As a parent, you need to encourage healthy habits—including exercise—in your youngsters. Physical activity should become as routine a part of their lives as eating and sleeping.

Reassure them that sports such as cycling (al­ways with a helmet), swimming, basketball, jogging, walking briskly, cross country skiing, dancing, aerobics, and soccer, played regularly, are not only fun but can promote health. Some sports, like baseball, that require only spo­radic activity are beneficial in a number of ways, but they do not promote fit­ness. Physical activity can be healthful in the following ways:

Increase Cardiovascular Endurance. More Americans die from heart dis­ease than any other ailment; regular physical activity can help protect against heart problems. Exercise can improve your child's fitness, make him feel bet­ter, and strengthen his cardiovascular system.

Aerobic activity can make the heart pump more efficiently, thus reducing the incidence of high blood pressure. It can also raise blood levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the "good" form of cholesterol that re­moves excess fats from the bloodstream. Even though most cardiovascular diseases are thought to be illnesses of adulthood, fatty deposits have been de­tected in the arteries of children as young as age three, and high blood pres­sure exists in about 5 percent of youngsters.

At least three times a week, your middle-years child needs to exercise con­tinuously for twenty to thirty minutes at a heart rate above his resting level. As a guideline, the effort involved in continuous brisk walking is adequate to maintain fitness.

Each exercise session should be preceded and followed by a gradual warm-up and cool-down period, allowing muscles, joints, and the cardiovascular sys­tem to ease into and out of vigorous activity, thus helping to guarantee a safe workout. This can be accomplished by stretching for a few minutes before and after exercise.

Improve Large Muscle Strength and Endurance. As your child's muscles become stronger, he will be able to exercise for longer periods of time, as well as protect himself from injuries—strong muscles provide better support for the joints. Modified sit-ups (knees bent, feet on the ground) can build up ab­dominal muscles, increase lung capacity, and protect against back injuries. For upper body strength, he can perform modified pull-ups (keeping the arms flexed while hanging from a horizontal bar) and modified push-ups (position­ing the knees on the ground while extending the arms at the elbow).

Increase Flexibility. For complete physical fitness, children need to be able to twist and bend their bodies through the full range of normal motions with­out overexerting themselves or causing injury. When children are flexible like this, they are more agile.

Although most people lose flexibility as they age, this process can be retarded by stretching to maintain suppleness throughout life, beginning in childhood. Stretching exercises are the best way to maintain or improve flexibility, and they can be incorporated into your child's warm-up and cool-down routines.

In most stretching exercises, your child should stretch to a position where he begins to feel tightness but not pain, then hold steady for twenty to thirty seconds before relaxing. He should not bounce as he stretches, since this can cause injury to the muscles or tendons.

Maintain Proper Weight. Twelve percent of children in the pre-puberty years are overweight, but few of these youngsters are physically active. Exercise can effectively burn calories and fat and reduce appetite.

Ask your pediatrician to help you determine whether your youngster has a healthy percentage of body fat for his or her age and sex.

Reduce Stress. Unmanaged stress can cause muscle tightness, which can con­tribute to headaches, stomachaches, and other types of discomfort. Your child needs to learn not only to recognize stress in his body but also to diffuse it effectively. Exercise is one of the best ways to control stress. A physically ac­tive child is less likely to experience stress-related symptoms than his more sedentary peers.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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