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Exercise is just what the doctor ordered! Experts at McMaster Children’s Hospital say exercise — even just playing outside — is part of a healthy lifestyle and contributes to a child’s physical and mental health.
November 1, 2021

Get your kids’ exercise habits in good shape – here’s why

Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth recommend children get at least an hour of vigorous physical activity each day, along with several hours of light physical activity.

So – are your children as active as they should be? With pandemic restrictions, increased screen time, and colder weather to boot – you’re not alone in thinking your child might need to incorporate more physical activities into their daily life.

From organized sports to tag on the playground to dancing in the kitchen, there are lots of ways to burn off some of that constant kid energy and improve their physical and mental health at the same time.

What happens when children are inactive?

An inactive lifestyle can have negative effects on children. Obesity is one concern, but mental health is also greatly affected by inactivity, as well as cardiovascular health, digestive health, and the management of chronic diseases.

Plus, research shows that regular exercise doesn’t just build muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance, it also builds resilience – an important skill to foster in children.

Experts at McMaster Children’s Hospital explain why staying active is critical.

Glenn Jenkins

Glenn Jenkins

Glenn Jenkins, exercise physiologist, Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Centre

Why is exercise important to overall health? Participation in regular physical activity has been shown to improve overall health, and specifically, immune function and cardiometabolic, musculoskeletal, and mental health. Meeting the current physical activity guidelines has been shown to increase sleep quality, decrease stress and anxiety, improve energy, and improve focus.

Pro tip: Physical activity does not have to be playing organized sport or working out in a gym. The benefits of physical activity can be achieved by adding movement into your day in several ways such as taking an extra set of stairs, helping with yard work, riding a bike to school/work, or dancing in the kitchen.

Dr. Bob Issenman

Dr. Bob Issenman

Dr. Robert Issenman, gastroenterologist, Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Centre

Why is exercise important to digestive health? The Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Program works with children and youth with chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Children with IBD often have delayed growth due to decreased appetite and chronic inflammation. As a result, they tend to have a decreased exercise tolerance and stamina. With exercise, not only is stamina improved but lean body mass is increased.

Pro tip: Providing patients with an exercise prescription in addition to medications that reduce inflammation has become part of making children as healthy as possible despite the burden of IBD.

Gianna Mazzocato

Gianna Mazzocato

Gianna Mazzocoto, occupational therapist, Child & Youth Mental Health

Why is exercise important to mental health? We know from research that mental health is positively affected by physical activity, play and mindfulness. Having access to engage in play-based and/or recreational activities in outdoor spaces can stabilize our mental health and nurture a healthy lifestyle. Research shows that outdoor activity provides individuals with the necessary opportunity to relax, refresh and form social relationships.

As part of our Child & Youth Mental Health Day Treatment Program, we support engagement in recreational and sport-based activities. Physical activity is fundamental to the work we do. We often have youth who feel immense levels of performance and social anxieties that lead to avoidance of engagement in physical activities. Often youth who participate in the program will finish, having made positive shifts in their awareness of their physical abilities and linking engagement in sport-based activities to improvements in mood and their social landscape. The power of physical activity cannot be undervalued when thinking about children and youth’s mental health. It is a key variable in recovery, positive mental health, and self-regulation.

“The power of physical activity cannot be undervalued when thinking about children and youth’s mental health.”

Jillian McJannet

Jillian McJannet

Jillian McJannet, physiotherapist, Pediatric Chronic Pain Program

Why is exercise important in managing pain? Physical activity is an extremely important component of chronic pain treatment, given that it has physical benefits as well as social and psychological benefits. Exercise helps children living with pain return to function and activities they enjoy.

The obvious benefits of improved cardiovascular health, strength, endurance and flexibility, all impact a person’s pain experience. Strong, flexible muscles support our body and allow it to move more efficiently, with less pain. Increased endurance helps our body tolerate activities for longer durations, and helps decrease fatigue.

Generally, sports and physical activity are social activities for children, leading to improved relationships and providing a supportive network.

Exercise also has a direct effect on specific neurotransmitters – chemicals that carry messages through our nervous system – such as serotonin, epinephrine, dopamine and oxytocin. These chemicals are responsible for decreasing stress and anxiety, helping us feel calm and happy, and are also the body’s natural pain killers.

Given that physical activity can impact all these areas, it’s clear to see how important return to activity is for children living with chronic pain.

Pro tip: All types of activity, from gentle stretching, yoga and swimming, to higher intensity exercise and sport can be beneficial. Consistency is key, so choosing an activity you enjoy is very important!

Jane Manayathu Jones

Jane Manayathu Jones

Jane Manayathu Jones, nurse practitioner, Children’s Exercise & Nutrition Centre

Why is exercise important to heart health? Staying active, with regular moderate to vigorous physical activity, has many positive health benefits including keeping healthy cholesterol levels and keeping your heart healthy. It also helps maintain healthy blood pressure, which helps to improve cardiovascular health. Improving and maintaining heart health in childhood and in your teens has a positive impact on your adult cardiovascular health.

Pro tip: Playing outside or playing sports are great ways to keep your body moving while spending time with friends.

Dr. Claudia Almeida

Dr. Claudia Almeida

Dr. Claudia Almeida, cardiologist, Hamilton Health Sciences

Why is exercise important to heart health? We have all heard time and again how exercise can be beneficial to cardiovascular health by decreasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes in the adult population. Recently, we have been able to provide more proof of how exercise can also change children’s cardiovascular systems and set them up for a healthier life.

In children as young as 3 to 5 years of age, exercise can decrease the stiffness of their vessels, making it easier for the heart to pump blood to the body. Exercise helps muscles, lungs and the heart become stronger. It leads to a decrease in obesity and diabetes in kids, the same way that it does in adults. This circles back to our heart, giving it a chance to live many years free of disease. In an era of escalating childhood obesity, it is important for us to cut the problem at the root, and give a chance for our children to live a long lasting healthy life.

Pro tip: We should encourage children to engage in at least 60 minutes of exercise, a minimum of 3 times a week, but the more the better. This exercise should be mostly aerobic, such as running, jumping, biking, and many team sports included. The exercise should be of moderate to vigorous intensity, which means the child should be breathing hard and getting their heart rate up. Introducing exercise to children’s lives at an early age is an inexpensive way to increase their long-term quality of life. Let’s get them off the screens and on their feet, keeping in mind that they learn by example!

Jessica Doody

Jessica Doody

Jessica Doody, physiotherapist, Children’s Developmental and Rehabilitation Program

Why is exercise important to children with developmental limitations? Being active is important to everyone – no matter their baseline abilities! Moving your body requires your muscles to activate and contract. As they contract, they help your blood vessels pump blood back to the heart. The more your move, the stronger your muscles get. As muscles work, they pull on your bones to move your joints through space. Your bones need stimulating to grow denser so anytime a stress is applied, whether by doing weight training or just standing/moving against gravity, your bones and joints will get stronger.

While all the above are happening in your body, your brain is continually becoming more aware of where your body is in space, which helps with balance and coordination. As important as moving is, it is important to allow sufficient time for your body to heal and replenish itself after exercise!

Pro tip: To help maximize your body’s movement and fitness, it is important to incorporate a variety of full-body activities that allow your body to work in various ways. This includes walking, team sports (standing or wheelchair), swimming and ball games. Even for individuals who cannot move themselves, having a support person move your body through motions can still be beneficial!