Physical Activity for Children and Teens

Physical Activity for Children and Teens

How Exercise Helps Children and Teens

Children as young as preschool age benefit from exercise and fitness as
much as adults do. Experts
recommend that teens and children (starting at age 6) do moderate to vigorous
activity at least 1 hour every day.footnote 1 And 3 or more
days a week, what they choose to do should:

  • Make them breathe harder and make the heart beat much
    faster than normal.
  • Make their muscles stronger. For example, they could play on
    playground equipment, play tug-of-war, do sit-ups, or use resistance
  • Make their bones stronger. For example, they could run, play
    hopscotch, jump rope, or play basketball or tennis.

It's okay for them to be active in smaller blocks of time that
add up to 1 hour or more each day.

Three Types of Fitness for Children

It's important for children and teens to take part in all three types of
fitness: flexibility, aerobic fitness, and muscle strengthening.

1. Flexibility

Show your children how to stretch
their muscles. Let them do stretching exercises along with you. Gently
correct their form when needed so that they learn good habits and understand
that there is a way to do stretches that makes them most effective.

2. Aerobic exercise

Children often get
aerobic activity without realizing it. Playing tag, having a squirt-gun fight,
or playing catch with friends all provide aerobic exercise. Going for hikes and
walking to the store also provide aerobic activity. Many schools and
communities have programs for soccer, T-ball, and other activities. These are
great ways for your children to get aerobic exercise and meet new

3. Muscle strengthening

Bicycling, swimming, climbing, and helping in the yard or garden are just a few
examples of activities that strengthen muscles.

Many children show an interest
in weights. When properly supervised, weight training for children is safe
and can be helpful in preparing them for sports and starting good lifetime
fitness habits. Talk to your child's doctor before your child starts a
weight-training program.footnote 2 This type of exercise is
not right for every child.

When children work with weights:

  • Have an adult present who knows how to use weights.
  • Be sure the children learn the proper form. If they don't, they can
    hurt themselves. They also probably won't get the full benefit of exercising
    with weights if their form is wrong.
  • Only use machines that can adjust to each child's size.
  • Be sure that children don't compete with other kids or even with their
    own past efforts. This can cause them to push themselves beyond what is
  • Be sure they don't move to heavier weights too quickly. The size of
    the weight is not important. Children will get stronger from weight training by
    doing the right number of repetitions and sets.

For more information, see the topic Fitness: Getting and Staying Active.

Tips for Helping Your Child

  • Look for ways to make exercise and fitness more fun.
    whether your child enjoys a certain activity. If he or she does not, look
    for other activities to try. Make activities more fun, perhaps by making them part of
    family outings, making up games to do along your route, or inviting friends to
    go along.
  • Expose your children to activities they can do for a lifetime.

    Swimming, biking, and hiking are examples of activities many people enjoy until well into old age.
  • Be a good role model for your children.
    If you treat your fitness
    program as an unpleasant chore, your children won't see it as much fun either.
    On the other hand, try not to emphasize fitness so much that your children feel
    pressure to keep up with your expectations.
  • Try to create a home atmosphere that encourages being active.

    Children who live in a household where both parents are inactive are likely to
    see themselves as naturally inactive too.
  • Limit TV, video games, and computer time.
    There is a direct link between reducing these activities and increasing
    your child's physical activity. Remember that exercise does not have to be
    complicated. Just sending children out to play is healthier than having them
    sitting in front of the TV or computer.

Organized sports

If your child is involved in organized sports:

  • Learn about the risks of injuries for that sport (which may be
    different for children than for adults) and how to prevent them. Help your child prevent sport injuries. If you have
    concerns, talk to your child's doctor.
  • Get to know your child's coach. Make sure that the coach knows
    something about sports medicine for that particular sport.
  • Learn about the coach's style for getting children to learn
    skills and play well. You and your child should be comfortable with the coach's
    style and the coach's skills.

Tips for Helping Your Teen

Teens sometimes need encouragement to get active. You can help motivate your teen by setting an example.

If regular exercise is a normal part of family life, teens may see it as
natural to start or keep exercising. Household chores count as physical
activity too. Talk with your teen about the physical
benefits of exercise, such as improved mood or energy level.

Competitive sports

Although competitive sports are a great way for teens to be physically
active while they learn valuable social skills, be aware that sports are not
for everyone.

  • Focus on things that your teen enjoys doing, whether it's
    competitive or noncompetitive sports or personal fitness activities (such as
    jogging, yoga, or cycling).
  • Some teens may prefer individual sports like
    karate, gymnastics, and swimming rather than group sports like soccer and

Help your teen avoid competition that stresses winning
over everything else, including sportsmanship and schoolwork.

Avoiding injuries

Many sports
require repeated movements or require that bones repeatedly bear weight.
Overuse injuries occur from stressing the joints, muscles, or other tissues and
not letting them recover.

The growing bones of young athletes may not be able
to handle as much stress as the mature bones of adults. Repeated stress on the
body may lead to irritation,
stress fractures, or other conditions. For example, a
swimmer may get a
rotator cuff injury because he or she doesn't realize
that fatigue or poor performance is a sign of overuse.

Teens who
take part in endurance events, year-round sports, or weekend tournaments, and
teens who diet to stay at a certain weight for a sport (such as gymnastics or
wrestling) are also at risk for injuries. The American Academy of
Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting one sport to no more than 5 days a week,
with at least 1 day off each week from any organized physical activity. Also,
the AAP suggests that athletes have at least 2 to 3 months off each year from
their particular sport.footnote 3

Anyone who does
too much activity without the right conditioning is at risk for injury. Be sure young athletes get enough rest and nutrition.

Some teens think protein powders or shakes are a nutritious snack that can help build muscle. They may cause harm and cost a lot. If your teen wants to try one, talk to his or her doctor first.



  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available online:
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2008, reaffirmed 2011). Strength training by children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 121(4): 835–840.
  3. Brenner JS, Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2007, reaffirmed 2011). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. Pediatrics, 119(6): 1242–1245.

Other Works Consulted

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2008). Bright Futures: Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children, and Adolescents, 3rd ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2008, reaffirmed 2011). Strength training by children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 121(4): 835–840.
  • Brenner JS, Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2007, reaffirmed 2011). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. Pediatrics, 119(6): 1242–1245.
  • Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, Council on School Health (2006, reaffirmed 2009). Active healthy living: Prevention of childhood obesity through increased physical activity. Pediatrics, 117(5): 1834–1842.
  • Murphy NA, et al. (2008, reaffirmed 2012). American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report: Promoting the participation of children with disabilities in sports, recreation, and physical activities. Pediatrics, 121(5): 1057–1061.


ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine Specialist Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

Current as ofJanuary 8, 2018

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