Are children getting enough physical activity?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, only about 1 in 4 children get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. One survey says that less than 25% of children in grades 4-12 get 20 minutes of vigorous activity or 30 minutes of any physical activity per day.

WellTuned spoke with pediatrician Dr. Audrey Atkins, a medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to understand why children need activity and what the risks are with not getting enough.

What do pediatricians recommend?

Dr. Atkins: School-age children and teens benefit from an hour of activity a day. Most of it should be aerobic, getting the heart and lungs going. But some of it should be bone building, like climbing, or for teens, a limited amount of weightlifting.

It can also be:

  • organized activity or team sports
  • free play
  • jumping rope
  • tug of war
  • climbing
  • kicking a ball
  • throwing frisbees
  • anything that keeps them moving

What’s behind the drop in physical activity?

Dr. Atkins: The ever-increasing use of technology has had a big impact on the time kids spend playing as well as participating in organized activities. This became even more concerning when everyone was so isolated during COVID-19.

How does activity affect bone growth and development?

Dr. Atkins: Think about how our bones carry us through life. Starting kids on a path of play and physical activity at a young age can increase bone density, build a strong back and spine, reduce the risk of fractures, and even help to decrease the risk of osteoporosis later in life.   

What are some other reasons to encourage activity?

Dr. Atkins: Regular activity can have a positive impact on mental health. The socialization from being with others in play or sports is a huge benefit. Activity is also helpful in getting a good night’s sleep.

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What health issues are you seeing when children don’t get the recommended daily physical activity?

Dr. Atkins: With more sedentary lifestyles, we’re seeing an increase in cholesterol issues in kids and teens. We’re also seeing an increase in Type 2 diabetes due to many children and teens having unhealthy eating habits and decreased physical activity.

Are the long-term effects of these conditions the same as for adults?

Dr. Atkins: Young people can have the same complications as adults. Diabetes can affect the eyes, kidneys, and heart, and for a longer period when it’s diagnosed so early. It’s so important to do what you can to help them avoid a lifetime of health concerns.

Should you also discuss healthy eating along with activity?

Dr. Atkins: You can talk about how eating healthy will make them feel their best. It’s not helpful to focus on a child’s appearance or weight.

Try to get kids to eat more fresh foods than packaged goods. Make the meals look as much like a rainbow as possible with lots of color with fruits and vegetables.

I would discourage parents from the old adage of “clean your plate to get dessert.” Depending on portion sizes, you could be forcing a child to eat more than they need to feel full. I wouldn’t use a sugary dessert as a reward for eating well.

Are you teaching your kids to body-shame?

Where do I start to get my child on the right track?

Dr. Atkins: Make sure you schedule recommended well care visits. Your provider will address activity and nutrition during these visits. Be prepared by making notes of any specific questions or concerns related to your child.

Here’s a chart from the American Academy of Pediatrics showing the well care needed for birth through age 18, including immunizations.

Marie Mosley

Marie joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2012. A Florida native, she has 25 years of experience in public relations, community relations, speech writing and special event planning.

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.