A group of kids run outside and play together.
Kids need about an hour of vigorous physical activity each day. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s time to head back to school—and that means time for recess, gym and extracurricular sports.

So does that mean kids are getting enough physical activity in their day?

Not always.

According to Lucie Smith, an exercise physiologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Healthy Weight Center, children should be up and moving for at least an hour each day.

It doesn’t need to be an hour all at once—it can be broken up into two or three segments each day—but it definitely needs to happen daily.

And, just as importantly, the activities they engage in need to be worthwhile—demanding enough to get their heart pumping hard, and long enough that they’re breathing heavily.

Life happens

While some kids play and run hard during recess, some don’t. Also, gym class and organized sports don’t always happen daily, particularly for younger children.

This means parents should encourage their kids to get moving at home, and they should lay the groundwork for future fitness and good health.

“Life happens, and it’s not going to be perfect every day, but it’s important to help kids move more in general,” Smith said. “And it’s important as parents to set a good example for kids.”

Smith uses what’s called the “talk test” to be sure kids are engaging in aerobic activities.

“You should be able to have a conversation,” she said, “but it’s going to be a little bit harder to talk between breaths.”

On the intensity scale, where 0 is not tired at all and 10 is extremely tired, kids should aim for about a “5” for one hour each day, Smith said.

She suggests these ideas to get kids started, based on their ages:

  • Toddlers and preschoolers: By nature, toddlers move a lot in a “stop and go” pattern, and their little bits of activity are going to add up throughout the day, Smith said. But she also encourages parents to create active supervised activities for little ones. For instance, spread toys, socks or laundry around the room and then work together to pick them up one at a time, placing them in a basket or box. You can run, jump, skip, hop or crawl as you play. Or, take your little one for a walk and bring along a ball they can chase during the walk. A scavenger hunt at a park or in the yard can also get them moving.
  • Elementary-age: Sports such as soccer and basketball are great to get their hearts pumping, Smith said. Fast bike riding also works, but this should entail more than just casual pedaling around the neighborhood. Older kids love obstacle courses, inside or outside. Using everyday items, you can build an obstacle course in your house or yard, giving children a great reason to jump, crawl and run. Make it a race among family members.
  • Teens: For structured strength training, create a circuit with jumping jacks, squats, push-ups and other body weight movements. These can be done during commercial breaks on television. Take turns choosing exercises and challenge each other, Smith said.

Smith encourages parents to practice what they preach.

“Kids inherently want to move and play,” she said. “The problem is that screens are cooler than playing. So given a choice, they are going to choose screens. We have to have things for them to do to draw them away. So instead of just reducing screen time, say, ‘We’re all going to go outside and shoot hoops.’”

“For parents, we say get up off the couch and do it with them,” she said. “The best way to teach kids is to model it. Instead of saying, ‘Go play,’ say, ‘Let’s go play.’”