Improving Children’s Health Through Early Investment In Physical Activity

blonde boy doing push ups with his dad in gym
April 8th, 2019 0 Comments

Hunter Bennett

Practically every person on the planet knows that regular exercise needs to be a part of their child’s routine. That it has a myriad of health benefits, while also causing improvements in mood and mental state.

Hell, there is even research to suggest that regular exercise can improve learning capabilities and cognitive function.

In short, it is essential.

But, for some reason, children activity levels across the country continue to decline – which we obviously need to rectify as fast as humanly possible.

What age should children start exercising?

As someone who works as an exercise professional, I often get asked ‘what age should children exercise?

Which, in my opinion, is a bit of a loaded question.Girl lifting weights with her dad

You see, when people think of exercise, they think of formalized physical activity. Planned running, swimming, cycling, or even weight training. They are ultimately talking about their child starting a formalized exercise regime.

Which is honestly something that most children probably don’t need to do until they are around the age of 10 years (Maffulli, 2000).

However, they really should be physically active from the moment they can walk.

This means as parents, you need to be encouraging a lifestyle that involves an abundance of regular incidental exercise. This means going for walks and bike rides, playing active games outside, and even participating in some sort of sport.

It is this process that really allows the development of good exercise habits across the lifespan.

Related Article: Resistance Training For Children

How long does it take a child to form an exercise habit?

Habits indicate something that is routine, and that requires very little effort to maintain.

With this in mind, developing strong exercise habits in children is extremely important. It ultimately makes it easier for them to maintain activity levels later on in life. Moreover, children with good exercise habits tend to deliberate less about participating in physical activity and even seem to enjoy it more (Hashim, 2014).

Ultimately because it is habitual.

Now, while the research is scarce, there is evidence to suggest that on average, it takes a touch over two whole months for a habit to form completely (Lally, 2010).

However, there may be some caveats around this.

Are frequency, intensity, and duration important in forming a lifelong habit?

The formation of habits very much seems to be determined by frequency. In short, the more often you do something, the more likely that it is going to become habitual.

This means that for your child to form a lifelong exercise habit, the most important thing comes down to exercising regularly. So, taking the time to participate in some for of physical activity daily will speed up the habit-forming process in a big way.

As such, it appears that the duration and intensity of that exercise is less important.

If you are asking how much should a child exercise, it really comes down to trying to get in a good amount of exercise every day.

There is a reason that most health and exercise guidelines across the globe recommend that children (2 years and up) should get at least 60 minutes of activity per day – because it ensures the development of good exercise habits.

Do children who participate in sports at an early age exercise more later in life?

One of the most important reasons to get your kid exercising early is because it can have huge implications for their activity levels later in life (Telama, 2005; Hirvensalo, 2011; Dohle, 2013).

There is an abundance of evidence clearly demonstrating that children who exercise more often (and participate in sports) throughout their childhood are in turn much more likely to maintain good exercise habits as adults.

Which as I am sure you can imagine, can have some obvious benefits.

Is early physical activity related to health outcomes in later childhood and adulthood?

You see, children who are physically active during childhood not only form good exercise habits that last them a lifetime but also develop a host of important qualities. These include (Gunter, 2012; Landry, 2012; Goodman, 2013; Pälve, 2014; Poulsen, 2015):

  • Improvements in cardiovascular health and function
  • Increases in bone mineral density and skeletal health
  • Enhanced metabolic function and better insulin sensitivity
  • Markedly improved weight management
  • Better mental health

Taking these into consideration, physical activity levels in early childhood reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety, heart disease, and osteoporosis, in later life.

Now that’s nothing to sneeze at!

What factors are relevant to supporting a physically active lifestyle?

There are several things we need to consider if we aim to support a physically active lifestyle in our children. If we manage to monitor these factors effectively, we can ensure our children develop good exercise habits, setting them up for a lifetime of success.

However, if we fail to address them, then the reverse is also true.

Parents activity levels and their kids

There is some very compelling research demonstrating that parents can influence the exercise levels of their children by simply choosing to undertake exercise themselves (Cleland, 2005).

Within this, there is a very strong association between the activity levels of parents and the activity levels of their children. To put it simply, parents who exercise more tend to have kids who also exercise more.

So be a good role model!

Sports participation and childhood physical activity levels

It should come as no surprise, but children who participate in sport outside of school hours tend to have markedly higher physical activity levels than those who do not (Saar, 2007).

This obviously demonstrates that there is a myriad of health benefits of sports for youth and that youth sports participation should really be encouraged.

It will literally set them up for a life of good exercise, and even better health.

Facilitating childhood physical activity

There is clear evidence to suggest that those parents who actively participate in physical activity with their children ensure the development of much better exercise habits than those who do not (O’Connor, 2009).

Pretty simply, exercise with your kids.Kids running under a parachute

This might mean playing a game like tag or basketball, or simply going for a walk every night – just ensure that they enjoy it, and it keeps them active.

Screen time and physical activity in children

Last but not least, I want to talk about screen time.

There is a growing body of research that clearly shows that children and parents who watch more TV see a decline in their physical activity levels. (Jago, 2010).

So, in short, limit screen time as much as possible!

Related Article: Physical Activity Requirements For Elementary School Children

Best tips to promote exercise early in life

Taking the above into consideration, I think we can truly accomplish better activity levels in our children by making four little changes:

  • Perform some sort of exercise (or active play) with your children every day.
  • Role model exercise for your children to promote good exercise habits.
  • Facilitate physical activity with other children and promote sports participation, which will make exercise fun and socially engaging.
  • Limit screen time as much as possible.

While these tips are indeed simple, I can assure you that they are extremely effective.

Take Home Message

Taking the time to develop good exercise habits during early childhood is imperative to maintaining good exercise habits into adulthood. Not to mention that this can cause vast improvements in health and function across the lifespan.

So give some of the tips in this article a try. Get your kids living a more active life! 


Maffulli, Nicola. “At what age should a child begin regular continuous exercise at moderate or high intensity?.” The Western journal of medicine 172.6 (2000): 413.

Hashim, H. A., et al. “Children’s exercise behavior: The moderating role of habit processes within the theory of planned behavior.” Psychology, health & medicine 19.3 (2014): 335-343.

Lally, Phillippa, et al. “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world.” European journal of social psychology 40.6 (2010): 998-1009.

Telama, Risto, et al. “Physical activity from childhood to adulthood: a 21-year tracking study.” American journal of preventive medicine 28.3 (2005): 267-273.

Hirvensalo, Mirja, and Taru Lintunen. “Life-course perspective for physical activity and sports participation.” European Review of Aging and Physical Activity 8.1 (2011): 13.

Dohle, Simone, and Brian Wansink. “Fit in 50 years: participation in high school sports best predicts one’s physical activity after Age 70.” BMC Public Health 13.1 (2013): 1100.

Pälve, Kristiina S., et al. “Association of physical activity in childhood and early adulthood with carotid artery elasticity 21 years later. The cardiovascular risk in Young Finns Study.” Journal of the American Heart Association 3.2 (2014): e000594.

Additional References

Landry, Bradford W., and Sherilyn Whateley Driscoll. “Physical activity in children and adolescents.” PM&R 4.11 (2012): 826-832.

Poulsen, Per Hoegh, Karin Biering, and Johan Hviid Andersen. “The association between leisure time physical activity in adolescence and poor mental health in early adulthood: a prospective cohort study.” BMC Public Health 16.1 (2015): 3.

Gunter, Katherine B., Hawley C. Almstedt, and Kathleen F. Janz. “Physical activity in childhood may be the key to optimizing lifespan skeletal health.” Exercise and sport sciences reviews 40.1 (2012): 13.

Goodman, Deborah, et al. “Relation between self-recalled childhood physical activity and adult physical activity: The Women’s Health Initiative.” Open journal of epidemiology 3.4 (2013): 224.

O’Connor, Teresia M., Russell Jago, and Tom Baranowski. “Engaging parents to increase youth physical activity: a systematic review.” American journal of preventive medicine 37.2 (2009): 141-149.

Cleland, Verity, et al. “Parental exercise is associated with Australian children’s extracurricular sports participation and cardiorespiratory fitness: A cross-sectional study.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2.1 (2005): 3.

Saar, Meeli, and Toivo Jürimäe. “Sports participation outside school in total physical activity of children.” Perceptual and motor skills 105.2 (2007): 559-562.

Jago, Russell, et al. “Parent and child physical activity and sedentary time: do active parents foster active children?.” BMC public health 10.1 (2010): 194.

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