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Physical activity for children

physical; activity; exercise; obesity; weight; stress; sport ;

Children need to be active - running, climbing, dancing, playing games and playing sport. They feel better, are healthier, and are able to learn more easily.


Playing games and playing sport:

  • helps children to develop social skills such as sharing, taking turns, cooperating and learning about winning and losing
  • helps children to develop physical skills such as running, eye-hand coordination and ball skills
  • helps children to get a sense of belonging when they do things with other children.

Families can benefit too when parents exercise with their children or support their child's sport.

Exercise is also a good stress reliever and may help a child who is having difficulty sleeping, concentrating or with friendships,

Moving around a lot, in every day activity as well as when playing games and sport, may help a child maintain a healthy weight.

Active children are more likely to become active adults.

More information

As well as the information in this topic there is more on the Raising Children Network site 

How much physical activity?

Children (and adults) need to be active every day in as many ways as they can.

  • Toddlers (1 to 3 years) & Pre-schoolers (3 to 5 years) should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day.

    Young children don't need to do their three hours of physical activity all at once. It can be accumulated throughout the day and can include light activity like standing up, moving around and playing as well as more vigorous activity like running and jumping. Active play is the best way for young children to be physically active.
    National Physical Activity Recommendations for Children 0-5 years olds (Australian Department of Health) 
    Move and play every day   
  • 5-12 year olds - A combination of moderate and vigorous activities for at least 60 minutes a day is recommended. Examples of moderate activities are a brisk walk, a bike ride or any sort of active play.

    Vigorous activities will make kids “huff and puff” and include organised sports such as football and netball, as well as activities such as ballet, running and swimming laps. Children typically accumulate activity in intermittent bursts ranging from a few seconds to several minutes, so any sort of active play will usually include some vigorous activity.

    Most importantly, kids need the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities that are fun and suit their interests, skills and abilities. Variety will also offer your child a range of health benefits, experiences and challenges. Tips and ideas  for 5-12 Year olds  National Physical Activity Recommendations (Australian Department of Health)
  • 13 to 17 year olds - At least 60 minutes of physical activity every day is recommended. This can built up throughout the day with a variety of activities. Physical activity should be done at moderate to vigorous intensity. There are heaps of fun ways to do it:
    • Moderate activities like brisk walking, bike riding with friends, skateboarding and dancing.
    • Vigorous activities such as football, netball, soccer, running, swimming laps or training for sport.
    • Vigorous activities are those that make you “huff and puff”. For additional health benefits, try to include 20 minutes or more of vigorous activity at least three to four days a week.

      Try to be active in as many ways as possible. Variety is important in providing a range of fun experiences and challenges and provides an opportunity to learn new skills. Make the most of each activity in your day. For example, you can walk the dog and replace short car trips with a walk or bike ride.

      Further information is available:   Tips and ideas for 13 to 17 year olds National Physical Activity Recommendations (Australian Department of Health)
  • Adults are advised to exercise for at least 30 minutes, most days of the week. Have a look at Tips and ideas for adults  National Physical Activity Recommendations (Australian Department of Health)

Healthy exercise

If exercise is starting to take over a child's life it you need to think about whether there is a problem that you need to explore. Children and young people who over-exercise are more likely to be injured and have health problems rather than gaining benefits from the exercise. They may be overexercising because there are problems in their lives. Many young people with eating disorders also over-exercise. Talk to your child and seek advice from your doctor. 

Tips for keeping children active

  • Children should enjoy the physical activity.
  • Children are more likely to be active if other people in their family lead active lives, so it is important for their health that you are also active.
  • It is important to encourage older children, such as those in high school, to continue to stay active.
  • Young children are not ready for competitive sport until they are at least 8 or 9, and sometimes older. See the topic 'Sport for children' for more information.
  • While young children are very interested in rules, they usually cannot follow rules until they are older. See the topic 'Winning, losing and cheating'.
  • Walk, skip, cycle, use a scooter or run places instead of going in the car.
  • Kick, throw, hit balls.
  • Look for local playgrounds.
  • Water activities can be fun, but need to be supervised.
  • Dancing, gymnastics, callisthenics or martial arts are fun activities, at a beginning, non-competitive level.
  • Many young children enjoy kindergyms.
  • Support your children's sport. Show you are interested. Help with transport to sport, and stay and watch.
  • Encourage children to help you in the garden or to help walk the dog, if you have one.  

Exercising safely

  • Always prepare for sport by stretching and warming up, and cooling down. Make sure that protective gear is always worn such as shin pads, knee pads, mouthguards or helmets.
  • Exercise should always stop if a child is in pain, feeling dizzy or faint, feels sick or very tired.
  • It is best to avoid exercise, or only train very lightly, if the child is unwell, such as if the child has a cold or bronchitis.
  • Most children with asthma will wheeze at least some of the time during vigorous exercise. Check with your doctor and make a plan about asthma management for exercise. Many children are able to exercise more comfortably and vigorously if they use a reliever medication about 15 minutes before exercise.

Resources in South Australia

Further reading

Department of Health (Australia) 

Medline Plus (USA)

Kid's Health (Nemours Foundation)

Raising Children Network 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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