Why your child needs an hour exercise a day and how to give it them
On a grassy patch in The Springs in Dubai, a personal trainer leads two sisters, about 8 and 10 years old, through a series of exercises. She demonstrates walking lunges between two cones. The sisters put their hands on their hips and walk forward, barely bending their knees. The trainer moves on to jumping jacks. The sisters go boneless, clapping hands above their wobbly arms. The trainer steps up her efforts and her encouragements start to sound more like commands. The sisters respond in turn, keeling to the side as if standing upright was too much effort.
Fortunately for all involved, no parents surfaced to witness the spectacle.
That ill-fated session at The Springs demonstrates the basic principles of how to get kids to exercise, in reverse. Children figure out the world through play, an impulse as strong as a child’s desire for food or sleep, according to a study carried out in 2009 by researchers at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development in New York.
What was missing from The Springs exercise session were elements of play – open-ended, creative, or goal-driven – the intangible yet essential element of fun.
It is recommended that school-age children engage in at least one hour of aerobic activity a day. Given the opportunity, most children find a form of exercise that appeals to them. Sports such as football, tennis, cycling or swimming get the heart pumping, while gymnastics, yoga and martial arts integrate muscle and bone strengthening. Boys who don’t like football might enjoy karate or swimming; girls who don’t like ballet might prefer basketball.
Psychologists advise parents not to pressure children about their performance, or make them feel insecure if they do not excel at a particular sport. Engaging in the sport is an end in itself, especially in the UAE, where one in three children is overweight or obese and at risk of early diabetes and hypertension, according to a 2013 study carried out at Zayed Military Hospital.
Exercise reduces stress, helps children to feel more positive about themselves and others, and improves sleep. Some studies also suggest that aerobic exercise improves concentration at school. More critically, exercise reduces the risk of chronic ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension later in life.
The question is, how can you incorporate one hour of exercise a day into your routine?
Parental modelling plays a decisive role because children tend to imitate their parents. A child is 30 per cent more likely to be overweight if one parent is, which increases to 80 per cent if both parents are overweight, according the Zayed Military Hospital study. Similarly, a child who watches their parents exercise has an increased chance of making the same healthy choice. Parents can circumvent modelling and cut to the chase by exercising with their kids by going on a bike ride or playing cricket in the driveway.
Easier said than done.
Over the summer holiday in the US, I had most of these elements stacked in my favour and every good intention, but we still struggled to get in that hour a day.
I started with parental modelling. Most mornings I would go for a walk and invite the kids to join me on their bikes. They were not interested and deemed the idea “boring”. I turned off all the screens until evening, hoping this would lead my kids towards more physical activity, but it didn’t work out that way. My son played with Lego and my daughter performed makeovers on unsuspecting relatives. Fine activities, but not exercise.
One day, feeling desperate, I took them to a park near my sister’s house in Nashville, Tennessee. There we came upon a hopscotch grid that was painted next to a basketball court.
“What’s this?” my son asked.
“Let’s try it,” my daughter commanded.
A real game of hopscotch is not as simple as it appears. It requires balancing and hopping on one foot for an extended period, jumping and turning in the air, throwing your marker accurately into a box as far as two metres away and the most demanding: leaning over on one leg to retrieve your stone and standing back up again without toppling over. I grew up playing hopscotch, but, like its cousins, four square and jump rope, it has not crossed the generational divide and is not among the games my children play with their friends.
I went over the rules: don’t step on the lines, you have to start again if you fall, etc.
We found two bottle tops and a twig to use as markers. We took turns hopping and leaning, stepping on lines, retaking our turns and recovering our breath before we started the next round. With the sun shining on our heads, we played for a good 15 minutes before my kids got distracted by the nearby playground and ran off, calling over their shoulders that next time we were going to play by their rules, not mine.
Playing hopscotch got me thinking about games that use a limited amount of space, minimal equipment and can be played indoors when the luxury of hospitable weather or outdoor spaces is unavailable. While it is not as physically demanding as many others, it is certainly better than sitting on the couch, and possibly better than what the well-intentioned but poorly prepared personal trainer offered back at The Springs.
Hopscotch itself has multiple variations. You can place the squares farther apart. You can draw the board in a circular formation, like a snail, so that you hop in circles instead of straight ahead. You can make the squares bigger or smaller. You can time the turns, so that each person has to complete their run in 30 seconds. You can add a no-go zone in the middle of the board, that has to be hopped over, or a variation called “sky blue”, which can function as either a rest area or a no-go zone that must be hopped over. In addition to hopscotch, four square, hula hoop and jump rope are all games that require minimal equipment and offer infinite variations.
Finding a way to exercise despite environmental restrictions is also a lesson in making the best of what is available – something I try to teach my children on many levels. There are always creative solutions to every problem, even if they are not readily apparent. And that’s what exercise is ultimately about. This is the body you were given: treat it to some activity – for at least one hour every day.