Last Updated: September 5, 2020

The benefits of physical activity for children remain the same today just as they have been for centuries. Consistent physical exertion keeps the body healthy while fending off infectious and non-communicable illnesses. These include cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure and stroke, respiratory diseases, cancers, and diabetes

Physical wellness is receiving renewed interest in the 21st Century because of the invasive challenges created by technology, and space limitation caused by urbanization. The use of digital devices has aided in the grooming of a sedentary generation, and the lack of sufficient living spaces has led to less room for children to play outdoors.

Sobering statistics about physical activity for children:

  • Children who are physically inactive will most likely become inactive adults
  • Less than 24 percent of children aged 6 to 17 are physically active for the stipulated minimum of 60-minutes
  • On average, the modern-day urban children spend more than 7 hours in front of the TV and computer

So, what is physical activity?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical activity is

any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure … Physical activity includes exercise as well as other activities which involve bodily movement and are done as part of playing, working, active transportation, house chores and recreational activities.

The art of physical wellness can be grouped loosely into three categories: active play, organized sport and active transportation:

Active play is the unstructured mode of play where children crawl, walk, run, jump, climb trees, dance, or even swim. This can happen indoors and outdoors.

Organized sport is a structured model of play with set rules which involve more than just one child or youth. Organized sports include football, netball, baseball, and other related forms of sporting activities outdoors and at school.

Active transportation involves body-powered forms of movement such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, canoeing, swimming, and skating. These kinds of physical activities are preferably done outdoors.

As per WHO Global recommendations on physical activity,

Children should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.’(MVPA)

While 60 minutes looks achievable, not as many children get to do it, especially those that dwell in urban settings. The situation is not getting any better given the projected acceleration of urbanization around the world. While only 53% of the global population lives in cities today, the number is projected to hit 68%, or more by 2050, according to the United Nations.

Here are Just a Few of the benefits of physical activity for children

Aerobics and other forms of physical exertions are advised to enhance cognitive, social, and creative skills in children. This even as they juggle their way inside the expanding digital ecosystem and crammed neighborhoods.

Well, if you are a parent and have your children caught up in the cycle of inactivity, below are reasons to get them running again.

brain and physical activity for yung children
Physical activity for young kids is fantastic for the brain

1. Mental benefits of physical activity

Health experts everywhere agree that physical activity is important for brain development, overall health, and mental excellence. And for good reasons:

Medium-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is known to increase blood flow to the brain, to facilitate the supply of much-needed oxygen and nutrients. These are invaluable in boosting the growth of the brain while improving memory and mental wellness.

The brain in young children is undergoing rapid development in early childhood. From birth to 5 years, the brain develops in response to the environment, sleep, physical activity, nutrition, human interactions, and everything else – positive and negative. Sustained MVPA, or lack of it, will prepare young children to excel or fail in life and academics, with consequences lasting up to adulthood.

Finally, a good amount of physical wellness throughout life helps to slow down the aging of the brain! In fact, regular physical activity can reduce aging by up to 10 years! Physical wellness is also known to keep dementia (Alzheimer’s disease) out of the way.  

2. Nutritional benefits of physical activity

Yes, young children can mean to be quite picky with food and impossible on the dinner table. Apart from trying out a few sneaky tricks to get your child to eat again, you can smuggle in physical activity, as a catalyzer. Children need 60 minutes of physical exertion every other day, for growth. Of course, more is better. When they indulge in these activities the body will continuously demand more energy to keep going.

What happens is that the level of Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) in the stomach will increase as glucose is used up. This will alert the brain to trigger a hunger spike, forcing the child to develop the urge to eat. This should just about get your child back to the dining table.

On a healthy note, the burning of glucose is good news since it helps reduce sugar levels in the body.

You can also use this opportunity to smuggle in nutritious serving your child dislikes. After a physical marathon and hunger, your child will readily eat whatever is served on the dinner table.

3. Physical exercise for body growth

Consistent physical activity is known to strengthen the bones, muscles, and heart, and to ensure a lean body. Consistent physical wellness energizes the bones and muscles to boost overall physical endurance.

During the first years of life, body growth is manifested in what is known as growth spurts, where the child actually grows in height and weight. For this growth to happen as per the recommended development milestones, the child should also get sufficient sleep.

You should be concerned, however, when your child becomes overweight even after sustained physical activities. This could be a sign of bad eating habits or genetic anomaly. In extreme cases, it may require prompt medical attention.

4. Emotional benefits of physical exercise

Emotional stress and depression are synonymous with all children. It brings down even the very strong among us. Preparing children to deal with mental challenges is, therefore, a very important skill.

Children are more vulnerable to emotional challenges than adults simply because they lack the necessary experience. Adults handle emotions better because of age-long experience.

Physical activity is one way children get to prepare for emotional and other challenges in life.

There is clear evidence of psychological wellness in most people who are physically active. They are less prone to extended effects of depression and anxiety and somehow tend to get out of the ‘depression room’ faster.

According to American Psychological Association,

We now understand much more about effective strategies for reducing stress responses. Such beneficial strategies include: …Engaging in regular physical exercise.

In addition, physical exercise is instrumental in fighting boredom, improving confidence and self-esteem, factors that are crucial in emotional development.

5. Health benefits of physical activity

The overall health of a child is a reflection of mental, physical, emotional, and social wellness, and starts very early in life. It also helps reduce the onset of illnesses, and in many cases. eradicates others completely.

The following conditions and illnesses are neutralized with physical activities:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • type-2 diabetes
  • blood pressure
  • tech-neck
  • body posture
  • sleep disorder
  • regulates the sedentary lifestyle
  • hunger disorders

Besides keeping diseases at bay, here are the other benefits of physical activity for children:

  • keeps children away from the TV, computer and game consoles – at least for a few hours!
  • is a good enabler for socialization
  • creates opportunities for physical skills in sports and games

6. Social benefits of physical activity

When children get involved in plenty of physical exercises at home and at school, they get to enjoy the fun part of life and to interact with age mates. By running together, playing soccer, and talking they learn more about life outside the home.

By interacting with fellow children, they can

  • make friends
  • become more creative
  • improve self-image through networking
  • cooperate better with peers
  • fight stress and depression better
  • cut down on anti-social behavior such as bullying

Overall, children will develop leadership skills, pimp up their self-esteem, become accepted, and have a better sense of empathy, all because of physical involvement derived from physical activities.

References on the benefits of physical activity for children: