Megan writes about health and wellness issues, among other topics.
Everyone should get exercise. With the rising occurrence of obesity and diabetes in today’s youth, exercise is being encouraged through many channels like school sports, private sports teams, and recreation departments. It is a hard battle, however, as many schools are being forced to cut down on physical education classes due to budget cuts, and kids are more interested in technology and more sedentary activities. Kids in general move around a lot less than they used to.
Some parents might be wondering, though, about the other end of the spectrum. Many parents participate in a sport themselves and would like their son or daughter to join in. Others may have their child enrolled in a sport like gymnastics or soccer that is becoming increasingly competitive and demanding. I myself as a parent have questioned when is it safe to have my daughter go on a run with me, or how long I can take her hiking.
If done for too long and at too high of an intensity, organized exercise may also cause both immediate and long term health problems in kids, depending on the sport. It also can result in malnourishment if kids are not taking in enough calories to cover both what they burn and what they need to grow. To avoid this, more strenuous exercise should be introduced at the appropriate time, and with adequate coaching and supervision.
I personally began running track and cross country at a pretty young age (age ten), and probably was doing more than I should have—by age 16, I was consistently suffering from overuse injuries, particularly from stress fractures. I know I ran more often than I should just because I wanted to keep up with my high-performing peers. Because of my history, and because of my interest in raising fit but healthy kids, I have decided to research this topic a little further.
What is the Minimum Exercise Kids Should Get?
Exercise can count as any kind of moving around. Little kids who go for a walk, play on the playground, play hide and seek, or go swimming are all exercising. Pediatricians agree that play and movement are necessary for proper development in kids, and play is even considered a basic human right.
Babies who aren’t walking yet don’t need any formal exercise. They will be plenty active just going through their daily routine, figuring out how to crawl and stand, and playing with their toys. For older babies and toddlers between two to three years old, it is recommended that they exercise with an adult-led activity (go for a walk, play outside) for 30 minutes, and are allowed at least one hour of free play in which they can move around. They shouldn’t be sitting for more than one hour a time while awake. Limiting screen time to less than one hour a day can make sure toddlers are getting all the exercise they need.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that youth over six years old get at least one hour of physical activity daily. This can be any physical movement, like walking, dancing, playing outside, jump rope, etc.
When Should Kids Start Organized Sports?
Once children reach school age, many parents (including myself) begin to think about enrolling them in competitive sports like soccer or baseball. Lots of clubs or recreation departments offer these types of sports. Some are just non-competitive practices where kids just learn the basics of the game. Others may be competitive, where teams travel and play against other teams. Competing in sports or participating in extracurricular activities early on can have some great benefits for kids, but they need to be ready.
Early on, these sports will usually only meet for once a week, and probably for not much more than an hour. These practices obviously are within the limit for physical activity, but parents should be careful about how they treat their children when they compete, especially at an early age. If kids are pressured by their parents or other adults too heavily, they may develop a resentment toward the sport or activity they are participating on. At age six or before, most kids are better off practicing these types of sports at home, and waiting until age seven or eight to begin competing and training seriously.
Exercise Limits by Sport and Age
Once kids do get a bit older and are ready for more organized exercise, how much is too much? The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that children in pre-school or younger don’t “specialize” in any particular sport, but rather divide their play time among many different activities that incorporate different movements. Once they do reach school age and are ready to specialize, there are certain limits. They should still follow the guidelines of recommended limits (see below), and should probably only play on one competitive team at a time. Unless kids show extreme talent or interest in one particular sport early on, there isn’t much reason to have them dedicate their time to one sport exclusively until after age 13 or 14.
Running, Walking, or Hiking
There is conflicting research on whether or not running long distances too long too early can be harmful to children. Some children begin running a mile or more by age seven or earlier, but other kids at the same age may not be able to run that far until a few years later. At least two children age five or younger have even completed a half marathon. A rule of thumb for running, and other aerobic exercise, is to limit it to the number of hours equal to their age per week. If kids enjoy the activity, have no injuries or pressure from adults, and are still asking to do more, they can—but this general rule should be the norm for most children.
If you do decide to have your kid go jogging with you, or if they show an interest in running, it is OK to allow them to do it, but look out for warning signs that the exercise is getting too intense. If they are gasping for breath, become pale, or complain of any pain, have them stop. Never insist a child keep running if they say they are tired or don’t want to.
Also, children should be wearing good quality shoes if they are going to be running or walking long distances. Younger kids are fine in any regular sneakers, but as they get toward middle school they should be wearing running-specific shoes if they are going to be continually running longer distances. If walking or hiking, the same rule goes. Comfortable sneakers are fine, and they can get trail boots or shoes as they get older.
Kids need to be to be able to ride a bike without training wheels before they’ll get very far on a bike, or can keep up with their parents on a longer ride. Many kids will begin riding without training wheels between ages 5 and 6.
Once they are able to maintain some speed on their bike, how far is too far for them to ride? The same general rule applies as to running or walking—if they are seven, they shouldn’t be riding intensely for more than seven hours per week, and so on. Many kids age five or older are able to ride over 10 miles easily, as long as they can take adequate breaks to recover and get something to eat or drink. Also, they don’t start out riding that long, but rather build up to it gradually.
While biking any distance, kids (and adults) should wear a helmet and practice safety, especially around cars. Other tips for riding longer distances with kids include bringing water along, making sure the bike is the right size for them, and making sure fun is the main priority.
I have seen gymnastics classes offered as early as 18 months old. Gymnastics classes are great to help children develop flexibility and confidence. It develops skills they can transfer over to other sports.
Even though kids can start gymnastics very young, there are a few key safety precautions to keep in mind. Kids under seven years old should never do backbends or bridges. Because their spines are not completely developed yet, backbends can over extend their spine, and in some cases cause them to become paralyzed.
Kids under seven should still follow the basic kids’ exercise rule: however many years old is how many hours in the gym. Kids ages seven to eight can practice up to nine hours a week, ages nine to ten up to 13.5 hours a week, ages 11-2 up to 16.5 hours a week. One they are over 13, they can practice 18 or more hours a week. These limits are based on seriously competitive gymnasts who aspire to make gymnastics a career. Gymnasts who are not as serious can obviously practice much less than this, but these should be the maximums.
Although competition may start at very early ages, children are not allowed to compete internationally in gymnastics until they are at least 16 years old. Younger kids may begin serious training for big competitions a few years earlier, but should be cautious not to overdo it and risk injury before they even reach their peak.
Competitive swimmers have also been known start at a pretty young age. A big percentage of swimming superstars began training before they were seven years old, including world record holder Michael Phelps. Their stories may have inspired many parents to get their kids involved in swimming, and training very hard, early on. The stories, however, only represent a fraction of a percentage of all swimmers.
For many kids who are still growing, especially before age 15, practicing swimming multiple times a day and more than five days in a row usually leads to early success, followed by early burnout, injury, or quitting because of decreased interest in the sport. Therefore, most young swimmers should limit practice to five days a week, a few hours maximum per day. In most swimming competitions, the lowest age group is 10 and under, sometimes 8 and under. Much younger than that, they are likely better off swimming recreationally until they are mentally and physically ready to begin more structured training.
Swimming, like any specialized sport, uses the same muscles over and over again. In addition to limiting practice to 5 days a week and avoiding two-a-days, experts also recommend that young swimmers take at least two months off at one point in the year.
Of course, swimming is great exercise, and kids should learn how to swim early on for safety reasons. Non-competitive swimming lessons start for children usually at age 6 months and up, and focus on the basics. Even if kids aren’t planning on maintaining swimming as a serious hobby or sport, knowing how to swim is a valuable skill that I think all kids should have.
Weight Lifting/Resistance Training
Thinking about taking your kid to the gym with you, or wanting to add some supplemental training to their training regimen? There has been a lot of debate over what effect weight lifting can have on developing young bodies. It used to be believed that if kids lifted adult-sized weights regularly before being fully developed, that they would end up abnormally short. Scattered research studies and word of mouth led coaches and parents to think that weight lifting affected growth plates, and was inappropriate for youth.
A lot of the literature warning against weight training for kids was referring to training at maximum weight limit for the sole purpose of bodybuilding or competitive weight lifting. This is still advised against until kids are done growing.
Nowadays, even though many people still hold this belief, research is showing otherwise. Pediatricians now think that (responsible) weight training won’t hurt, and may actually help, kids. Building muscle strength and endurance can help prevent injuries while playing other sports. It can also help kids with self-esteem, as it usually results in overall better athletic performance. It also improves heart and bone health. Kids ages five to 18 should do some kind of recreational muscle strengthening exercise three days a week.
Children should not be allowed to lift adult weights unsupervised, and should not make weight lifting their main sport. They should rather incorporate light weight training like medicine ball drills, or equipment-free exercises like push-ups. Playground equipment like monkey bars naturally incorporate “weight training” in a completely fun, pressure-free environment.
I obviously did not list every possible sport kids could be involved with here. There are many other sports and activities kids can and do get involved with competitively. For any sport, you should make sure first and foremost that your child has an interest and desire to continue doing it. Don’t push them to do a sport they don’t want to do. Never ask them to train when they really don’t want to. Don’t ask them to play through pain, and don’t have them specialize in any one sport too early on without taking adequate breaks throughout the year. Also, go with your instinct—if you feel they can handle a sport, and they enjoy it and ask for more, chances are it’s OK.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Helen Stuart from Deep in the Heart of Texas on July 29, 2017:
I wish I'd been allowed to go to gymnastics, I'd be a ninja by now
Megan Machucho (author) from Milwaukee, WI on July 29, 2017:
That's great that he taught you early on! Early appreciation of sports and physical activity is so imporant.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 29, 2017:
I remember my Dad teaching me to ride a bike and swim when I was a child, of which I am thankful. I really enjoy swimming now and bike ride quite a lot.