The value of exercise

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As a paediatrician, I am disturbed by the new terms being used in reference to young children. These include such things as digital dementia, tech fatigue and blue light damage. While I fully understand that digital media is here to stay and is a necessary part of a modern child’s life, I cannot ignore the negative impact it is having on our children’s development and health.

There is a simple solution to a worldwide epidemic. The solution is healthy exercise. I stress healthy because we can also push exercise to a point where it becomes unhealthy, when unrealistic demands are placed on the child to be the best or to win at every sport.

The benefits of sport and general exercise are immense but let’s look at a couple in a little more detail. The obvious ones are keeping your child fit, strengthening muscles and creating a sense of achievement. Besides these, there are a number of other benefits

Disease prevention

An article published by the famous children’s hospital in England, Great Ormond Street, has cited exercise for children as a key factor in reducing our risk of developing major illnesses such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer. The major driving factor for these illnesses is obesity.

Childhood obesity is largely due to lack of exercise and poor eating habits. In America and Australia, obesity in children is out of control and as a result many children and adults are already living with these diseases. Compared to these two countries, we are about 10 years behind regarding the obesity epidemic. This means there is still a window of opportunity to intervene by encouraging school sport and outdoor activities.

Mental well-being

Sport, in general, has been shown to improve the overall mental well-being of all children, especially those who are at risk for depression. The American Journal of Pediatrics published a study which concludes that physical activity improves a child’s self-esteem, thinking skills and overall confidence. Exercise releases endorphins and these hormones make for a happy child.

“The benefits of physical activity far exceed fitness because it has a major impact on diseases and mental well-being.”

Another fascinating study has shown how exercise can alter the brain. Aerobic exercise appears to change where the brain focuses its energy. During an activity that involves running, skipping, swimming or any other aerobic activity, the area of the brain concerned with focus and co-ordination is stimulated. Energy which may have been used in the area of anxiety and stress is redirected, making it impossible for a child to worry or become anxious while partaking in sport.

child-swimming-showing-the-value-of-exercise

Activity also appears to have a big influence on the chemistry of the brain. Children who are active are able to control their moods and to concentrate far better in a classroom situation than their inactive classmates.

With current statistics showing suicide due to depression as a major cause of death in children between the ages of 10 and 24 years, I urge parents and schools to encourage plenty of outdoor activity. A child that engages in moderate to vigorous activity from the age of six may be prevented from developing depression in their senior primary years and beyond. This fact cannot be ignored.

Interpersonal and social skills

South Africa’s very own Prof. Tim Noakes has been involved with sport and health for many years. His research has cited winning as only the 14th most important aspect of sport in the eyes of our children. The sense of comradery, being part of a team and acceptance by peers, weigh in as far more important to children than winning does.

Noakes states: “The activity is everything, and the outcome is of a lesser consequence to them. But what’s the first thing we ask our children after a sporting event: ‘Did you win?’”

While playing sport, children learn teamwork, discipline, how to focus on a goal and experience rewards from participating all while having fun and developing co-ordination and physical skills. These are far more positive terms in relation to our youth than digital dementia.

Guidelines for exercise

Babies that are not yet walking: 

  • Should spend time on the floor in various positions. These could include “tummy time”, on a mat reaching for toys, under a gym where they can grab upwards and in positions that encourage rolling.
  • Activities in water. This does not need to be a swimming pool. Time in the bath where a baby can play with toys or experience the sensation of floating while being supported by an adult, or pouring activities all encourage cognitive and physical awareness.
  • Be sure to balance play and rest in this age group. Limit the time spent in one position like when strapped into a car chair. While TV or other screens can give the parents a break, it is vital that these activities are limited.

baby-showing-the-value-of-exercise

Children under the age of five who are walking comfortably on their own:

  • Children of this age should be active for at least three hours a day. The activity should be spread throughout the day and should ideally include a lot of active play rather than structured sport.
  • Playing outside where they can climb, run and skip should be encouraged.
  • Playing with a ball will encourage eye-hand or eye foot co-ordination, which are important later in formal sports.
  • Riding a bicycle or scooter will encourage good balancing skills.
  • Children in this age group should only be inactive for long periods of time when they are asleep, so TV and screen time must be limited.

 Children between the ages of five and 18 years

  • Children in this age group should be involved in physical activity for a minimum of one hour up to several hours every day.
  • Activity should be a combination of moderate and high intensity.
  • Moderate exercise means the child can still talk but will experience an increased heart rate and may begin to sweat. This usually occurs in activities like riding a bicycle, doing martial arts, jogging or playing in the swimming pool.
  • High-intensity activity or vigorous intensity means that the child is breathing faster and talking is more difficult. This kind of activity would include a game of soccer or rugby, netball, gymnastics, rollerblading or mountain biking.
  • Children in this age group should do resistance training and high-intensity activities at least three times a week to strengthen muscles and bones.
  • Most of these high-intensity activities are done with other people, so team sports or an outdoor family activity would not only do wonders for the child physically, but also encourages healthy relationships.

child-sports-the-value-of-exercise

Fit, active children make for fit, active adults. The benefits of physical activity far exceed fitness because it has a major impact on diseases and mental well-being. Our children can move away from vitamin D supplements into natural sunlight, they can enjoy the benefits of friends and can be spared the devastating effects of mental illness. All this can be achieved by encouraging children to do what they do best… move!

This article was written for BabyYumYum by our partner paediatrician, Dr Maraschin.

Also read:

The true value of dance classes for kids
Helping your teen to have a positive body image