In the never-ending ‘to do’ list for parents, exercise – for both kids and adults – can often fall to the bottom of the pile. Most of us might like to assume that young children are naturally active but unfortunately, extensive research shows this often isn’t the case.
The most recent guidelines from the HSE (available at mychild.ie) say that all children aged between five and 18 should be getting a minimum of 60 minutes of exercise a day, yet only 19pc of primary school children in Ireland are meeting this target. But why does it matter, and what exactly counts as physical activity?
“Increasing the time spent in physical activity is just so vital as inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for mortality causing 3.2 million deaths around the world every year,” reveals Dr Grace O’Malley of the RCSI Division of Population Health Sciences.
“The 60 minutes of activity should be intense enough to make them breathe faster and get warm,” she explains. “It can be spread throughout the day. For children aged 5-8 this can be made up of six, 10-minute blocks of play and the preference and physical ability of the child should always be considered.”
Why 60 minutes? “This is the amount of active play needed for healthy development of the heart, lungs and body as a whole,” explains Dr O’Malley.
But there’s also a need to vary the exercise. “To make sure bones and muscles develop properly, children should spend at least three days per week doing bone-building, high-impact, vigorous play such as jumping and climbing games,” she says.
Aside from the health benefits, there are other important reasons for raising an active child. “It’s vital for wiring the neural pathways in the brain, developing special orientation, supporting balance, coordination and strength,” explains Catherine McHugh, early childhood specialist with Early Childhood Ireland. Then there are the emotional benefits. “Movement encourages children to express their emotions and supports awareness of themselves.” There are benefits to literacy and sleep patterns, too.
But with Irish primary schools having just one hour of mandatory PE per week, it’s a simple fact that your child’s physical education needs to be addressed outside the classroom.
Dublin-born mum-of-three Ciara Faloona is the Northern Ireland franchise manager for Playball, a nationwide sports and movement programme for kids aged between two and seven.
“It’s frightening the amount of children who attend Playball that don’t have a ball at home,” she says. “Simply providing children with access to physical activity without even having to encourage them starts with a ball: basketball, football, bouncy ball – it doesn’t matter. Bounce it, throw it, kick it.”
An hour a day and separate exercises for strengthening? That might sound pretty overwhelming, but it’s important to realise that meeting the guidelines doesn’t mean signing your child up for classes seven days a week.
“Any movement of the body, arms and legs can be considered as physical activity,” reveals Dr O’Malley. “This might be a walk to school, helping to do laundry, washing the car, jumping in puddles, walking up or down stairs, playing hide and seek, building a fort or taking part in organised games and sport.”
Stepping away from screen time and getting outside is a great place to start – never mind the weather. “Are children playing on flat surfaces with predictable equipment that can be manipulated in just one way or are they getting opportunities to get lost in nature, playing as they develop?” asks McHugh. “Are they running up and down on uneven surfaces, jumping over tree stumps, stooping under branches and playing with the resources that only nature could provide us with?”
“Some research reports that moving and playing in outdoor environments is more beneficial for mental well-being and stress relief compared to indoor play, and that children may be more active outside,” adds Dr O’Malley.
Other research suggests that kids are five times more likely to be active if mum and dad are too. The guidelines that say 5-18 year-olds should only have two hours of screen time per day apply to adults, too.
“As our world today can push us towards being inactive most of the time, it’s really important to have a plan to help the family be as active as possible,” says Dr O’Malley. “Practical things like having rain coats, umbrellas, shoes and runners close to the front door can help as the visual stimulus to take the decision to walk or get the bus even in the rain.”
Meanwhile, mum-of-four Siobhan O’Neill White likes to make fitness a family matter. After recently joining in on her kids’ roller-skating craze, the mams.ie director believes keeping fit can even be fun when done together. “It’s great fun, it helps everyone feel better, sleep better and get on better as a family,” she says. “We go for walks and jogs on the beach and swim together. My daughters all love roller-skating, so I got a pair of roller-skates myself this summer – retro ones with four wheels and a stopper from gosk8.ie like I used to have as a kid in the 80s.
“My husband, David, plays over-35 football twice a week and all the kids play GAA and are brilliant at it. They inspire me and they’re like little drill sergeants when we go for a run! We bought a basketball hoop a while ago and my son, who is 16 and normally wouldn’t want to be seen exercising with his ma, will always challenge me to a few hoops – I used to be basketball captain at school. By the end of the day, my Fitbit is usually around 15,000 and I’m still having to drag the kids in,” says Siobhan.
“It’s about finding things you all like to do together. Sometimes I’ll do a Davina McCall DVD and the kids jump in with me. Walking is free, the beach is free and things like a basketball hoop are so cheap. There’s no need for exercising to be a costly exercise.”
Ways to keep your kids active for an hour
⬤ Keep kids enthusiastic and engaged in walks by packing bug catchers, magnifying glasses, mirrors (to see the foliage above) and coloured plastic panels that show the world through insects’ eyes.
⬤ Ramble the rainbow by spotting something in all the seven colours as you walk.
⬤ Can’t get outside? Set up family boot camps where everyone picks an exercise; play high-energy games such as Simon Says and Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes; do ad-break exercises during TV time; or stage a dance-off.
⬤ Involve the kids in the decision-making. Give them options of where you’ll walk or make a fortune spinner to decide your destination. Create cards together and pull ideas out of a hat on whether you’ll walk, skip, swim or cycle today.
⬤ Don’t just walk up the stairs to bed. Try slithering like a snake, bouncing like a bunny, running, or pausing and crouching like a meerkat. Rolling, stopping, bending, twisting, landing, stretching, climbing, balancing and turning are all fundamental movement skills, key to supporting children’s coordination.
⬤ Look at little changes you can make: stairs over elevators, getting off the bus a stop early, or parking a little further from the shops.
⬤ Consider a family exercise class (or home DVD) such as yoga. Try something new. It’s about keeping it fun.