Over the last few decades, we have seen a steep decline in the activity levels of our children. Given that physical activity is integral for normal growth and development, the maintenance of physical health and function, and even normal brain development and cognition, this is obviously not a good thing.
In response to this epidemic, countries have made some rather large changes to their physical activity guidelines for children.
These have been developed to provide not only insight, but also guidance, around how much exercise your child needs, and what sort of exercise you should be promoting. In doing so, they provide the means to maximize the health benefits associated with exercise in the most efficient and effective manner.
But what are these guidelines? And how do they differ between countries?
The Australian, Canadian, American guidelines for physical activity in children
In my opinion, the three countries that are at the forefront in this area are Australia, Canada, and America.
These countries have all seen the physical activity levels of their children decline steeply over the last few years and have immediately begun to make recommendations to remedy this as fast as humanly possible.
While the wording of these guidelines is somewhat different between the three countries, the key pieces of information are the same. This truly demonstrates to me that they have been developed in a way that will offer the best outcomes for your children.
Australian Physical Activity Guidelines for Children
To maximize the associated health benefits of exercise, the Australian physical activity guidelines recommend children aged 5–12 years should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity activity every single day (Okely, 2012).
They also suggest that this physical activity should include a variety of aerobic activities, and incorporate some form of vigorous intensity activity. Within this, at least three days per week, children should also engage in activities that strengthen muscle and bone.
It is also recommended that to achieve additional health benefits, children should engage in more activity – up to several hours per day.
Related Article: Your Role as a Parent in Your Child’s Exercise Routine
Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Children
Much like the Australian guidelines, the Canadian guidelines suggest that to optimize health, children (aged 5–17 years) should perform at a minimum of 60 min of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity daily (Tremblay, 2012).
This activity should explicitly include vigorous intensity exercise at least 3 days per week, and activities that strengthen muscle and bone at least 3 days per week.
They also state that more daily physical activity is strongly recommended to provide greater health benefits.
American Physical Activity Guidelines for Children
Finally, the American guidelines state that both children and adolescents should do 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2008).
They strongly recommend that the majority of that 60 minutes should be comprised of either moderate or vigorous intensity aerobic activity – while also ensuring that for at least 3 days per week, that aerobic activity is of a vigorous intensity.
With this, they also suggest that as part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should also include physical activity that places a priority on the strengthening of muscle and bone on at least 3 days of the week.
They finish the guidelines by stating that: ‘it is important to encourage young people to participate in physical activities that are appropriate for their age, that are enjoyable, and that offer variety.’
How well do children meet these exercise guidelines?
Now, this is where things start getting a little scary.
The global analysis of childhood activity levels has shown that merely one-fifth of all children manage to meet these exercise recommendations (Hallal, 2012). That means that 80% of children across the world are not even getting close.
If we choose to break this down and look at it on a country by country basis, we see that this is fairly consistent across the board.
Research has shown that somewhere between 9% and 15% of Australian children meet the activity guidelines set by their home country (Cliff, 2017; Santos, 2017), while Canada seems to fare slightly better, with somewhere between 12% and 30% managing to meet the guidelines (Botey, 2015; Lee, 2017).
Finally, evidence suggests that around 15% of American children manage to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines for health and function (Song, 2013).
It is important to note that it does appear that slightly more children do manage to meet the aerobic exercise guidelines, however, the vast majority fail to perform a vigorous activity or regular physical activity that has the capacity to strengthen muscle and bone.
What about screen time?
The minimal number of children managing to meet the activity guidelines is of pretty serious concern. Within this, there has been recent research demonstrating a very clear association between screen time and physical activity (Serrano-Sanchez, 2011; Wyszyńska, 2017).
In this manner, those children who spend more time in front of a screen and on electronic devices tend to perform less physical activity – which makes quite a bit of sense if we take a second to think about it.
With this in mind, the three countries above have also made some key recommendations around sedentary behavior and screen time – with all three of them suggesting that children between the ages of 2 and 5 should have no more than one hour per day, while children above the age of 5 should have no more than two hours per day.
Unfortunately, much like our physical activity recommendations, very few children currently manage to meet these guidelines (Anderson, 2008; Houghton, 2015).
In fact, it is estimated that around 80% of all children exceed these recommendations – which could also explain why around 80% of children do not manage to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines set by their home countries.
Related Article: FUNtervals – Exercise Intervals For Children
How does this all impact obesity?
So, we know that physical activity is important. And we know that children are not coming close to meeting the guidelines.
But what does this really mean for our children?
To put it bluntly, they are becoming less healthy, and much fatter.
In both Australia and Canada, around 25% of children aged between 2 and 17 are classified as either being overweight or obese, while in America this number increases all the way up to 30% of all children and adolescence.
Which, when we consider the negative physical and mental health implications associated with childhood obesity, is absolute insanity.
Which is why we must do everything in our power to increase activity levels and limit screen time.
How can I increase my child’s activity levels and reduce their screen time?
In my mind, the first point of call to increase activity levels actually comes through a reduction in screen time. As screen time and physical activity are inversely related, simply reducing one should cause a subsequent rise in the other.
Now with this in mind, we want to keep screen time to under 2 hours per day.
First and foremost, it is in your best interest to model healthy electronic use. You should try to avoid using electronics for leisure in front of your children. Instead, prioritize performing some form of physical activity with them when possible.
Secondly, try and set aside times of the day where electronics are allowed, and when they are not. This is a sure-fire way to reduce electronic use while setting clear boundaries around when your children can use screens.
Finally, you should educate your children on why limiting screen time is so important. By making sure they have an understanding of why you limit screen time, they will be more likely to stick to your rules around it. It makes the entire process so much easier.
Now, in terms of facilitating an increase in physical activity, you should encourage active play with your children every single day. This might mean going for a walk, playing a game of tag, or simply throwing the football in the backyard.
You should also perform an exercise for your own benefit to act as a positive role model. This might mean going to the gym a couple of time per week or going for a jog every couple of days.
Finally, you should also try and get your child involved in some form of organized sport. Facilitate their participation in that sport as much as possible.
By ticking all these boxes, you have a recipe for success.
Take Home Message
Over the last few years, we have seen the physical activity recommendations for children change drastically. The intent is to maximize childhood health and stave off the negative effects of inactivity we are seeing across the globe.
However, children are still not meeting these guidelines, and childhood obesity rates are rising accordingly.
As such, it is in your best interest as a parent to limit screen time and increase activity as much as possible. This will reduce the risk of your child becoming overweight or obese. It will also set them up for a lifetime of good health.
So what are you waiting for?
Okely, Anthony D., et al. “A systematic review to update the Australian physical activity guidelines for children and young people.” (2012).
Tremblay, Mark S., et al. “New Canadian physical activity guidelines.” Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism 36.1 (2011): 36-46.
US Department of Health and Human Services. “2008 physical activity guidelines for Americans.” http://www. health. gov/paguidelines/ (2008).
Hallal, Pedro C., et al. “Global physical activity levels: surveillance progress, pitfalls, and prospects.” The lancet 380.9838 (2012): 247-257.
Cliff, Dylan P., et al. “Adherence to 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years and associations with social-cognitive development among Australian preschool children.”. BMC public health 17.5 (2017): 857.
Santos, Rute, et al. “Compliance with the Australian 24-hour movement guidelines for the early years. Associations with weight status.” BMC public health 17.5 (2017): 867.
Botey, Anna Pujadas, et al. “Adherence to Canadian physical activity and sedentary behavior guidelines among children 2 to 13 years of age.”. Preventive medicine reports 3 (2016): 14-20.
Lee, Eun-Young, et al. “Meeting new Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines for the early years. Associations with adiposity among toddlers living in Edmonton, Canada.” BMC public health 17.5 (2017): 840.
Song, MinKyoung, Dianna D. Carroll, and Janet E. Fulton. “Meeting the 2008 physical activity guidelines for Americans among US youth.” American journal of preventive medicine 44.3 (2013): 216-222.
Serrano-Sanchez, Jose A., et al. “Associations between screen time and physical activity among Spanish adolescents.” PloS one 6.9 (2011): e24453.
Wyszyńska, Justyna, et al. “The relationship between physical activity and screen time with the risk of hypertension in children and adolescents with intellectual disability.”. BioMed research international 2017 (2017).
Anderson, Sarah E., Christina D. Economos, and Aviva Must. “Active play and screen time in US children aged 4 to 11 years in relation to. Sociodemographic and weight status characteristics: a nationally representative cross-sectional analysis.” BMC Public health 8.1 (2008): 366.
Houghton, Stephen, et al. “Virtually impossible: limiting Australian children and adolescents daily screen-based media use.” BMC Public Health 15.1 (2015): 5.