Put some fun in your children’s fitness

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans were developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as recommendations to improve and maintain Americans’ physical and mental health. The guidelines for adults include 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week—with at least 2 days dedicated to muscular strength—but the recommendations for children are a little different.

Children’s physical activity guidelines

Children ages 6–17 should aim for at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Muscle- and bone-strengthening activities are included in that hour and should be performed at least 3 days a week.

The adult guidelines require continuous aerobic activity, while children only need to accumulate a total of 60 minutes daily. Children generally exercise and play in spurts—which isn’t always technically considered aerobic because the duration isn’t long enough, but it gets the job done.

For young children ages 3–5, the guidelines are even less specific. Children should be physically active throughout the day. Adults can encourage active play, such as pushing toys and climbing safely.

Types of activities

Aerobic activity at a moderate-intensity level should make up most of the daily 60 minutes.  Moderate intensity will make it difficult for your child to talk to you when they are playing. Lower-level activities for longer times­—such as hiking—are okay too. Aerobic activities include running, skipping and hopping, riding a bike, and walks. Playtime doesn’t need to be organized and can be spread throughout the day. One way to add minutes is to make sure that any “child vehicles”—any toy a child rides—isn’t motorized. Physically moving what they ride can add to activity time and also build muscular strength. 

Muscle strengthening is important for growth and development. Unlike adults, kids don’t need focused resistance training to improve muscle strength. Weightlifting isn’t bad for kids, but they need to use appropriate weights, exercises, frequency, and supervision. It’s easier to encourage muscle strengthening for kids the old-fashioned way—play. Climbing on playground equipment or makeshift obstacle courses is the best exercise for strength gains. Most young kids find them more fun than dedicated resistance training. Muscle-strengthening activities should be included in the 60 minutes of daily activity at least 3 times per week.

Bone strengthening—in addition to getting enough calcium and vitamin D-—is essential to stimulate bone growth in children. Osteoporosis (a condition in which bones become weak and brittle) is said to be a childhood disease that presents in adulthood. The fastest bone growth takes place in late childhood through puberty, but then it slows down until the age of 25. After 25, bone mass decreases. Not building enough bone mass in childhood might put your child at risk for osteoporosis in their old age. Bone growth is stimulated by weight-bearing activities that send forces up and down the body. Walking, running, and jumping are good examples of weight-bearing activities. These activities should also make up part of the daily 60 minutes, at least 3 days per week.

The three different types of activities aren’t mutually exclusive; a bone-strengthening activity can also be muscle-strengthening and aerobic.

Here are some examples of what your child’s active week might look like:

Monday: Plan a playground playdate for your child with the other kids in the neighborhood. Monkey bars, hopscotch, and other obstacles help build muscular strength and provide bone strengthening.

Tuesday: Encourage your child to take an energetic bike ride with you after school. This provides vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Visit the Rails-to-Trails website for some ideas.

Wednesday: Lead your child in some resistance activities or yoga (muscle-strengthening exercise) at home. The American Council on Exercise has videos for outdoor and indoor exercises.

Thursday: Go for a family walk around the neighborhood (moderate-intensity aerobic exercise).

Friday: Have a family dance-off with active video games (aim for vigorous, bone-strengthening intensity) and follow with a game of tug-of-war (muscle strengthening).

Saturday: Play a pick-up game of basketball or soccer with your child. Running and similar weight-bearing (vigorous-intensity aerobic and bone-strengthening) activities help build strong bones.

Sunday: Plan an afternoon hike and picnic (moderate-intensity aerobic activity). Military Service Members and their families, Veterans, and Gold Star families can receive a free annual pass to the U.S. National Parks. Visit the National Parks Service’s youth-oriented Discover the Forest website and the list of national parks to find places near you. There’s even a free phone app, so you can find places on the go.

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National Institutes of Health. (2018). Kids and their bones: A guide for parents. 16 July 2021 Retrieved from www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/bone-health/juvenile

Piercy, K. L., Troiano, R. P., Ballard, R. M., Carlson, S. A., Fulton, J. E., Galuska, D. A., . . . Olson, R. D. (2018). The physical activity guidelines for Americans. JAMA, 320(19), 2020–2028. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.14854