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Lifelong habits for health: Fueling kids’ exercise at home is good for physical growth, mental strength

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 5, 2020


From leaf pickup to yard games, kids exert tons of energy at Darius Howard’s home. As a dad and uncle, he regularly plans fun-in-motion for them both outdoors and indoors.

Also as a MUV Fitness district manager in Spokane Valley, Howard knows such activity will help his daughter, nieces and nephew gain lifelong habits for health. It’s a boost for their growth and mood, he said.

“The biggest thing right now is just understanding what physical activity does for kids,” said Howard, who studied exercise science. He considers himself a role model for young people in his life.

“We live in a world right now where there’s not only the pandemic, but obesity affecting adults and youth alike. Are we giving kids the ability to use up the energy inside their bodies on a daily basis, and are we forming the habits with kids that will make it so when they’re adults?”

While kids ages 6 and older need at least 60 minutes of daily exercise, the coronavirus pandemic has paused many organized sports, as well as school physical education. Keeping youth active is a concern shared by health experts, including Dr. Cicely White, a local pediatrician.

White, who also worries about kids’ isolation during the pandemic, has researched childhood obesity and its prevention. From the Kaiser Permanente Veradale Medical Center, she leads Kaiser’s pediatrics program in Spokane.

As months under the pandemic linger, parents and guardians can help set examples, she said. Spring and summer made it easier for families and kids to get outside and play, go on walks or hikes and ride bikes.

“Going into the colder months of the year, kids tend to be outdoors less,” she said. “We’re going to remain isolated but now kind of lose that physical activity component, which is important for managing stress and maintaining overall health, but especially mental health.

“I worry about them perhaps not having that physical activity as frequently just due to the change in climate.”

Why kids need exercise

White said physical activity – play, organized sports and physical education – offers many benefits for kids.

“First and foremost, it just improves functional connectivity between various regions of the brain,” she said. “It helps with cognition and behavior, and it helps with mood – just their overall mental health.

“We know that being active and burning calories helps maintain weight or minimize children being overweight. It greatly impacts mental health, development and cognitive development in children.”

Physical activity also helps kids and adults avoid gaining more weight and developing insulin resistance, although White said genetic influences can be a factor, as well.

Within families or on teams, other activity benefits include learning to respect others, and “how to know the difference between when to lead and when to follow.”

It supports kids in learning how to problem-solve, socialize and better communicate, she said.

But it doesn’t have to be through organized sports. Aside from the pandemic, lack of access can be a factor for children because of cost, transportation or the work schedule of parents, White said.

As an example, families can create an obstacle course, do sports or fitness routines together and select hikes.

“Obviously with kids, they enjoy activities that allow them to be more kinetic or that involve movement,” she said.

“One thing we have to stress for families is there are a lot of ways for kids to be active beyond organized sports.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance for at least 60 minutes of youth activity can be done in small blocks, perhaps six 10-minute segments or two 30-minute ones. It should be intentional daily, White said.

“That time should be as protected as the time we sleep or the time we work.”

Ways to promote exercise

Although many children and teens aren’t in school, Howard also said there are many ways families can be active at or near home.

He suggests fun activities for kids such as with dance, games or walks, as long as it raises the heart rate.

“As far as exercises go, kids can do bodyweight exercises – squats or push-ups, sit-ups, lunges – any variation of those things, or just having fun at home,” Howard said.

“My nieces, nephew and my daughter were in the house the other day and playing Twister, and we had a dance party.

“My daughter and I play a game where you get a ball and put it between your heels, and you move back and forth like in a crab position, and you’re trying to score a goal. Basically, you’re playing soccer, but your hands are on the ground like you’re crawling around. It was fun.”

He encourages his 5-year-old daughter to do gymnastic moves at home.

Recently, he paid $5 an hour to the kids working with him to pick up leaves and sticks in the yard, involving his daughter, nieces ages 4, 5 and 9 and a 6-year-old nephew. Then they all played a game.

“Every time they come over every other weekend, we do something active because it’s important,” Howard said.

White said she regularly talks to families about applying similar ideas.

She said that also during the pandemic, kids look to adults in learning to stay resilient. That carries over any time that parents are following a healthy diet and regularly being active.

“I think the biggest thing that you can do as a parent is be a positive role model,” White said.

“Go for walks together as a family, and find safe outdoor spaces where families can go and throw a ball or make a self-made obstacle course. Even inside the home, there are several things we can do like dances, or do small exercises like jumping jacks together.”

She’s aware of child-rearing grandparents who might be less active, but they can help with counting those exercises in a family competition, or by participating in some way, she said.

“It should be made up so everyone can participate from toddler up to the teenagers, and the parents or guardians as role models.”

For older youth athletes, she offers another idea. Parents can encourage them in staying connected to teammates virtually, with the teen encouraging team challenges for all to stay active and complete workouts, she said.

“It builds in an accountability piece where you know every other member of the team is doing something. Later, they can come together virtually and talk about it.

“If they see it as an opportunity to turn it into a game, but do it as part of a team, they can still stay connected.”

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