fitness tips kids

7 Simple Fitness Tips for Kids

September 29, 2015

Obesity is a disease that is no longer limited to adults, but is afflicting the youth of America today. Whether the causes are attributed to increased caloric consumption associated with larger portions sizes, increased accessibility or cost (value) of food; or decreased opportunities for physical activity within a day, what is clear is that the society in which many children are being raised has, and continues to evolve, into one that presents greater challenges to live a healthy lifestyle.

Consider a few changes for example – with the need for both parents often having to work, and the lack of safety when it comes to unsupervised afterschool play in many neighborhoods, many children have become ‘latchkey’ kids, locking themselves inside their homes until Mom and Dad return from work. This enables unsupervised access to TV, Internet, video games and other sedentary forms of technology (e.g., smart phones), plus unlimited access to the refrigerator and pantry – exacerbating the challenges we are facing with obesity and inactivity in children. And it certainly does not help when organized physical education opportunities in schools are lacking or continue to get cut from a curriculum. Every parent wishes the best for their children, yet try as they might, our rapidly-evolving (technological) world continues to present greater challenges to providing them with a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Statistics for inactivity and obese children

The picture that our obesity and inactivity statistics are unfortunately quite ugly:

  • 17% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese = approximately 12.5 million children.
  • Children aged 6 to 19 years spend an average of 424.7 minutes daily performing sedentary activities.
  • Although children are supposed to accumulate at least 60 minutes daily of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, it is estimated that is only achieved by:
Children Percentage
11 years of age24% - 30%
13 years of age19% - 34%
15 years of age17% - 33%

Fitness Tips for Kids

Considering how far we are from achieving the government’s recommendations for physical activity in youth, what are we to do? While there are no simple, single solutions, the ability to think outside of the box and successfully implement some small changes may provide the necessary shift of the dial towards a healthier lifestyle. Consider the following ideas as examples:

Tip #1: Alternative physical activity other than sports. We need to recognize and appreciate that participation in organized sports is not for all children. Rather than push them unwillingly into sports, explore alternative avenues for physical activity that can be equally effective in improving overall health. The pressure to unwillingly participate in organized sports may diminish these experiences and forever shape future exercise decisions. Simple ideas built on recreational activities and gamification rather than exercise may prove to be more successful. Identify any movement or activities they enjoy and encourage increased levels of participation in those types of activities.

Tip #2: Fitness trackers and teams.  As fitness trackers (e.g., wrist band devices) become more popular, affordable and fashionable, they can be used to enhance social status, social support and social motivation in children. Given how influential peers can be, encouraging the idea of sharing activity information with those who are already engaged in physical activity can create camaraderie and even some friendly competition (be careful to avoid excessive competition in some children). Structure team goals and incentives around the volume of activity achieved by a team, but be careful as this strategy may not necessarily promote sustainable behaviors – more of a pay for play mentality.

Tip #3: It is COOL to be active!  Emphasize the ‘coolness’ factor of being active. This may require a need to shift away from the perception of a need to exercise, and change it to a desire to perform more movement or activity. At times, parents emphasize the importance of being healthy (i.e., benefits), but fail to recognize that it may be irrelevant to a child. Take the time to listen and understand what is relevant to the child (what they view as short-term benefits) and devise ways to connect physical activity to what they deem relevant and hip. This may help build the value they see in being active which can drive long term sustainability.

Tip #4: Be a role model of activity:  Set a precedent in being a positive role-model. Parents should actively seek to join their children in being active. This applies more to younger children who see their parents as positive role-models and inspirational. Encourage them to not only participate, but to take ownership in choosing activities – this provides greater autonomy of choice which can become a powerful motivator for sustainable behavior. All family goals should be collectively established by the entire family.

Tip #5: Use SLOTH.  Although technology is a significant contributor to inactivity, it can also be used to promote greater levels of activity. As we cannot deny or resist technology, we might as well learn to embrace it. In response to criticism from parents and health organizations, some video games now incorporate various levels of activity into traditionally inactive games as part of the gaming experience – requiring children to complete some amount of physical activity in order to unlock a game level. Set a precedent by implementing a non-negotiable trade-out between set amounts of physical activity in exchange for leisure activities. Find ways to incorporate more physical movement into their days – use the acronym SLOTH (Sleep – excessive, Leisure, Occupational/chores, Transportation, Household) to identify opportunities for more activity.

Tip #6:  Incorporate activity in a child's day.  While parks are viewed as locations where children can be physically active outside of home and school, the unfortunate reality is that only 20% of U.S. homes have a park within ½ mile distance, so we need to look elsewhere. Encourage more walking or bike riding to and from school. In 1969, 47.7% of children walked or rode bikes to school. Forty years later (2009), this number has dropped to 12.7%, with over half of these active children (55%) only walking or riding up to no more than a ¼ mile. As more communities focus on creating safer, more walker-friendly zones (street lights, supervision with parental monitoring), take advantage of the opportunities to move and burn calories outside of the school and home hours.

  • A 120 lb. child can expend 50 calories walking 15-minutes to school and about 100 calories riding for 15-minutes to school. This totals 500 kcal or 1,000 kcal respectively (walking, riding) a week – doesn’t sound like much, but that is approximately 4½ - 9 pounds every academic year.
  • A 150 lb. child can expend about 63 calories walking 15-minutes to school and about 135 calories riding for 15-minutes to school. This totals 630 kcal or 1,350 kcal respectively (walking, riding) a week – doesn’t sound like much, but that is approximately 6 – 12½ pounds every academic year.

Tip #7:  Short periods of activity counts.  We all have convictions, yet we need to be amenable to making concessions. Although current guidelines call for 60-minutes daily of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, for most children, this is unrealistic. Newer research is demonstrating the benefits of shorter bouts of more intense activity on overall health. If you examine participation levels in 5-minute versus 20-minute bouts of continuous, moderate-intensity (i.e., above brink walking pace) physical activity, the rates drop significantly. Accept shorter bouts of activity that can be accumulated throughout the day (think short bouts of activity to unlock gaming levels).

School Grades% Participation in
5-minute periods of time
% Participation in
20-minute periods of time
1st grade through 3rd grade76% – 85% 5% - 8%
4th grade through 6th grade29% - 49%1%
7th grade through 9th grade 21% - 37%1%
10th grade through 12th grade16 – 22%1%

As technology evolves and our lives become more complex, the environment and opportunities to become more sedentary continue to mount. Perhaps it is time to start rethinking our traditional ideas and practices about healthy lifestyles and to consider how small, creative steps and the positive use of technology may provide that much needed stepping-stone towards a healthy life.

Photo credit:  Carlton Reid  cc



Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., NASM CPT, CES & PES, CSCS, ACE-CPT & LWMC, HFS, CISSN, is a faculty instructor at San Diego State University, and University of California, San Diego and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and president of Genesis Wellness Group. Previously as an American Council on Exercise (ACE) exercise physiologist, he was the original creator of ACE’s IFT™ model and ACE’s live PT educational workshops. An international presenter at multiple health and fitness events, spokesperson who is featured in multiple media outlets and accomplished chapter and book author.