What You Need to Know: Exercise for Children’s Growth and Development
The importance of exercise for children’s growth and development cannot be understated; both for the physical and mental benefits. Numerous research studies show that children who develop healthy lifestyle patterns at a young age are more likely to carry them into adulthood, promoting lifelong health benefits. These benefits are not only physical but can improve mental well-being as well.
Physical Benefits of Exercise
Throughout an individual’s life, a sedentary lifestyle can have marked effects on that individual's health, whether child or adult. Exercise is important for all children and doesn’t only help with weight maintenance. Exercise helps to decrease the risk of many health concerns, and can also have these physical benefits:
- Strengthens the Heart - Some forget that the heart is a muscle and, like other muscles, its performance improves when it is challenged. As your child exercises, their heart responds by becoming stronger and more efficient in its actions, i.e. pumping blood throughout the body. This increased strength can help ward off heart disease.
- Strengthens the Lungs - Similar to the heart, the efficiency of your child’s lungs increases as they are exercised. As a result, more oxygen is drawn into the body while more carbon dioxide is expelled. This increased efficiency helps to alleviate the natural decline of oxygen intake which occurs with age.
- Strengthens Bones - Bones, like muscles, grow physically stronger when stressed. Certain types of exercise can help increase bone density and in turn prevent the development of osteoporosis, a condition which causes the bones to become weak and fragile.
- Reduces Risk of Diabetes - Physical activity also lowers blood sugar levels by triggering the muscles to take up more glucose from the bloodstream, using it as an energy source for performance. Lower blood sugar levels are directly associated with a lower risk of diabetes.
- Prevents Cancer - People who exercise regularly tend to have a lower incidence of cancer by helping control weight, reduce sex hormones or insulin, and strengthen the immune system. The cancers most affected by physical activity include colon, prostate, uterine, and breast cancers.
- Regulates Blood Pressure - Exercise helps regulate and lower blood pressure in two ways. First, by reducing the amount of cholesterol and fats in a child’s blood. This coupled with the increase in flexibility of the walls of the blood vessels that results from exercise lowers blood pressure. Second, exercise has been shown to reduce stress. High levels of stress are associated with elevated blood pressure, reducing stress has been shown to in turn lower blood pressure.
- Controls Weight - When children, and adults, are sedentary they tend to take in more calories than they actually need to function. These unused calories are then stored as fat in the body and begin to accumulate. Such excess fat in the body is associated with heart disease and diabetes in both children and adults alike.
While some of the risks of a sedentary lifestyle may not seem relevant to children, it is important to remember that healthy habits start at a young age. The principles of health and exercise that apply to adults are just as important for children. Their diet and exercise routines influence their bodies in just the same way. Exercise can be achieved in numerous ways with your child, just ensure you are exposing them to a variety of activities.
Mental Benefits of Exercise
Physical activity does not only enhance your child’s body but their mind too. While researchers are still unclear as to how or why exercise can have some of these mental health benefits, they are sure that the connection between exercise and the mind exists. Here are some of the mental health benefits exercise is known to be associated with:
- Improves Mood - Multiple studies have shown a correlation between exercise and a positive effect on mood. One theory cites that a specific neurotransmitter, serotonin, causes what is commonly referred to as an “exercise high.” The theory states that exercise produces increased levels of serotonin in the central nervous system which in turn increases feelings of well-being, heightens the appetite, and lessens negative feelings related to depression.
- Reduces Stress - Exercise can also help manage mental stress, decrease feelings of anxiety, and deal with other existing mental tensions. After a workout there are increased concentrations of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the brain which is known to moderate the brain’s response to stress.
- Increases Cognition - Various studies show the link between cardiovascular exercise and neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the process of creating new brain cells which help to improve overall brain performance and function. Other studies suggest that a particularly strenuous workout may also increase levels of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein in the body, which is believed to help with decision making, higher thinking and learning. And yet another study conducted by researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that children who exercised were better at “attentional inhibition,” or the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on specific task, while seeing heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks.
- Improves Self-Confidence - Research shows that physical fitness is linked to a boost in self-esteem and increased self-confidence. These effects have been noted in numerous research studies regardless of age, gender, or weight.
There are a number of other benefits that may be experienced by those who exercise in adulthood including sharper memory, increased relaxation, increased productivity, improved sleep, and enhanced creativity. Interestingly, exercise can also slow the natural cognitive decline that comes with age.
Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, increases the chemicals in the brain which support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is vital for memory and learning. By developing exercise habits from a young age, your child will continue to engage in physical activity and see the health benefits, both physical and mental, throughout adulthood.
Exercising With Your Child
The thought of exercising with your child can be daunting for some, especially when thinking of age-appropriate activities. However, childhood exercise does not need to be rigorous or scheduled. Instead, you should focus on engaging them in activities that they find enjoyable. If your child is reluctant to attend scheduled after-school activities such as athletic practices when first beginning to engage in exercise, try starting with “free play” time at home. During this time, allow them to use it as they desire so long as they are moving their bodies. You may also have success by encouraging them to be outside, or with friends, in order to help stimulate their activity.
Types of Exercise
When exercising with your child, be creative in your choice of activity to keep them engaged and excited. There are many types of exercise, each of which contributes differently to the list of health benefits previously discussed. According to Harvard Health Publishing, there are four primary types of exercise. To see maximum health benefits, an exercise routine should incorporate all four types. However, getting your child to participate in one or two is a great start.
The four types of exercise are:
1. Aerobic - More commonly referred to as cardiovascular or endurance exercise, aerobic activities increase the heart rate, cause breathing to quicken, and typically work up a sweat. Endurance exercise helps to increase the functioning of the heart and lungs by improving cardiovascular capacity. For children, these activities do not have to be vigorous and can include:
- Playing Tag
2. Flexibility - Activities that promote flexibility help your child’s posture and minimizes the risk of injury in other activities. Flexibility will become more vital to their ability to perform tasks as they age. Flexibility promoting activities include:
- Active play on a playground
- Digging in dirt or sand
- Lifting and carrying things such as groceries or toys (too much weight lifting should be avoided during childhood and adolescence)
- Climbing stairs
- Playground activities like monkey bars, climbing ladders, or scaling poles
4. Balance - As we age, the systems which help to maintain balance begin breaking down. Certain exercises, however, can help slow the progression of this deterioration. Plus, improving balance at a young age can help children feel steadier on their feet. Balance exercises for children include:
- Playing hopscotch
- Walking on a balance beam, or placing tape on the floor and trying not to “fall off”
- Standing on one foot
Exposing children to a broad range of physical activity will help them to stay fit and healthy throughout their lives. The more fun you can make exercising for your child, the better because if they are enjoying themselves it won’t feel like exercise at all for them. Let your child choose what is best for themselves and as your child continues to increase their physical activity, you will see increased health benefits, both mentally and physically. Understanding the vital importance of exercise for your child’s growth and development will help you engage with your child in new ways.
Exercise for Children's Growth and Development
Physical activity is important for children of all ages, providing both mental and physical benefits, like improved confidence and stronger bones. Find a few activities for your child to stay active and you’ll quickly see the benefits of exercise for children’s growth and development.