Being active: More than just physical benefits. Active children also feel better about themselves and are more willing to learn.
Experts have observed that in the past several years, the physical condition of children has been deteriorating. In 2019, 10% of Canadian children aged 5 to 17 were obese and nearly 18% were overweight. In Quebec, only 20% of children aged 5 to 11 are active in their free time. Encouraging physical activity among young people is therefore essential.
Benefits of physical activity
There are numerous benefits of physical activity for children. Being active has benefits on several aspects:
- Development. Physical activity promotes healthy growth and development. By moving, the child develops stronger motor skills and works their muscles, thus developing their strength, power, and endurance. Stretching regularly also increases flexibility. Finally, physical activity is a good opportunity for the child to improve their coordination, posture, agility, and balance.
- Fitness. Being an active person increases cardiovascular and respiratory abilities, which helps control weight as well as blood sugar or cholesterol levels. Physical activity therefore reduces the risk of suffering from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer in adulthood.
- Body weight. Physical activity is a good way to increase energy expenditure. Moving can reduce the risk of being overweight or obese. This is all the more important given that childhood obesity makes one more likely to remain obese in adulthood.
- Bones. Activities that require the child to bear their body weight, such as when climbing, or that make them jump increase bone density, and therefore bone resistance. This type of activity also improves the internal structure of bones, making them stronger.
- Emotional health. Active children have higher self-esteem, self-confidence, and better body image. Physical activity also helps to reduce stress as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Socialization. Physical activity is an opportunity for children to develop their social skills and relationships with others. Being active therefore helps break isolation and fosters social integration.
- Academic success. Physical activity can improve grades in school for several reasons. First, sports require memorizing rules and sequences of movements, or making quick decisions. Moreover, moving activates certain areas of the brain and increases the blood supply they receive. This also enhances sleep quality and memory consolidation. In addition, the confidence and relaxation provided by physical activity stimulate the child’s intellectual skills. Finally, young people who are active adopt better behaviours and develop a greater sense of belonging at their school. All of these factors are said to help the child function better in school.
Development of physical skills in children 5 years of age and older
Once they reach 5 years of age, a physically active child should have mastered basic skills like running, throwing, catching, and jumping, after which their growth and development will continue.
From ages 6 to 9, their balance improves. The child begins to acquire more difficult skills, such as throwing objects farther. They can better assess the speed of objects, but their muscular capacity develops later in adolescence. They also have a difficult time processing several pieces of information at once and making the right decision on a game strategy, for example. Since their attention span remains short, the instructions must be brief and the rules flexible.
Recommendations for physical activity
According to the Physical Activity Tips for Children, children aged 5 to 11 should perform:
Only 47% of Canadian children aged 5 to 11 perform at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.
- 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.
- Vigorous activities at least 3 times per week.
- Activities that help strengthen muscles and bones 3 times per week. However, the objective is not to perform bodybuilding sessions, but rather activities that make the muscles work against resistance, such as climbing.
For children who are not very active
However, the Canadian Paediatric Society points out that children who are not very active should start gradually. They should start with only a few exercises, then gradually increase until they reach the suggested objectives.
For example, they can start with 15 to 30 seconds of moderate to vigorous activity interspersed with active rest periods (i.e., 1 to 2 minutes of walking), for a total of 10 to 15 minutes per session.
After 2 or 3 weeks at this pace, a progression toward 1 to 3 minutes of activity interspersed with active rest periods of 1 to 2 minutes will allow the child to increase their cardiorespiratory abilities. Indeed, even a little exercise will have beneficial effects for the child.
If your child does not want to do physical activity, check out our fact sheet L’enfant qui n’aime pas le sport (in French).
Be as active as possible
Kino-Québec believes, however, that the Canadian recommendations have been formulated more from a medical perspective and do not promote behavioural change among young people.
According to this organization, the frequency at which a child is active is more important than the duration of their activities. For this reason, Kino-Québec suggests that children do as much physical activity as possible. According to the organization, this recommendation would be more suitable for the various profiles of young people.
Finally, children should permanently adopt an active lifestyle so that the resulting benefits do not fade over time.
The different types of physical activity
There are several ways to be active. Each type of activity has its advantages, and none can completely replace the others.
- Moderate-intensity activity: The child’s heart rate increases and they become slightly out of breath, while being able to maintain a conversation with a partner (e.g., brisk walking, cycling, skating, skateboarding, playing at the park).
- Vigorous activity: The child’s heart rate increases a lot, they start to sweat and become so out of breath they are unable to speak (e.g., running, swimming, playing soccer, cross-country skiing at a good pace).
- Aerobic activity: Exercise that causes large muscle groups to work at a low to moderate intensity for a sustained period of time. This activity improves cardiorespiratory abilities (e.g., swimming, running, cycling, skipping rope).
- Strength activity: Exercise that develops and strengthens muscles and bones using light weights or body weight when possible (e.g., running, skipping rope, climbing, gymnastics, situps, push-ups).
A child should practise a wide variety of physical activities to develop a solid foundation for all motor skills such as balance, throwing, catching, jumping, swimming, and running. Studies have shown that children who specialize in a sport at a very young age end up not performing as well as others as they grow up because they do not develop all their motor skills.
Applying these recommendations
Physical activity can take different forms in a child’s life. There are, of course, organized sports, such as soccer, karate, hockey, gymnastics, or swimming. Family activities provide more opportunities to be active: Going out to the park, pool or playground, taking walks, hiking, throwing a ball, or dancing to music in the living room.
You can also integrate physical activity into daily family life:
Walking to and from school or to the grocery store.
Walking the dog.
Participating in household tasks: Emptying or filling the dishwasher, folding laundry, carrying grocery bags, helping to rake leaves in the fall or shovelling snow in the winter, etc.
Taking the stairs more often for those who live in a residential building. If you live in a multi-storey building, you can start by walking down all the stairs. Next, you could take the stairs for the first floor and take the elevator the rest of the way up, and gradually add a floor every two weeks.
Role of the family
Good habits in terms of physical activity are formed early. Therefore, parents play an essential role in conveying the importance of moving and being active. Moreover, children are more likely to be active if they feel the approval of others and if their parents value physical activity.
To support your child, do not hesitate to encourage them and play the role of the coach. Create opportunities to be active together and also make sure your child has the equipment they need for the activity.
Finally, supervise the activities in which your child participates. Encourage your child to persevere without pressuring them. At this age, what matters above all is that your child discovers the joys of being active.
Under surveillance: Screen time
The Canadian Paediatric Society does not provide a recommendation regarding a maximum screen time for children aged 5 and older, but rather focuses on a healthy use of screens that does not harm children’s school activities, physical activity, sleep, and social activities, all of which must be prioritized.
The Canadian 24 Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth recommend that children aged 5 and older spend no more than 2 hours a day in front of a screen. However, turning off screens is not enough: Children should be offered substitute physical activities that will get them moving.
Physical activity at school
Health and physical education classes are mandatory in elementary schools. According to the Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur, these classes should account for 2 hours per week in the class schedule.
The program proposed by the Ministère includes three skills to be developed:
- Acting in a context of physical activity: The child must practise key components to move well, such as balance and coordination. Among other things, the child will have to perform a series of actions successively or simultaneously.
- Interacting in a context of physical activity: The child must learn to adapt their actions to those of others, i.e., synchronize and communicate with them. This will teach them team work and proper etiquette regarding victory or defeat.
- Adopting a healthy and active lifestyle: The child will develop tools to manage their health and remain active. They will learn how to assess the impact of their actions on their well-being and how to make sound lifestyle choices.
Health and physical education classes in elementary school therefore offer various activities adapted to the child’s developmental stage. The main goal is to introduce children to sports to help them adopt a positive attitude toward physical activity and give them the means to be active outside of school. For this reason, the focus is on the development of physical skills. However, activities of a competitive nature also have their place since they are a source of motivation for some students.
Finally, being active at school is not limited to health and physical education classes. Free time such as recreation or lunchtime is conducive to physical activity. Studies show that when children are active during these periods, it amounts to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.
Things to keep in mind
Practising different physical activities fosters the healthy development of children.
Leading by example by practising physical activities with children encourages them to be active.
Adopting an active means of transportation, such as walking, cycling, or taking the stairs more often are concrete examples of how to help a child develop a healthy lifestyle.
Scientific review: François Prince, PhD kinesiologist, Faculty of Medicine, Université de Montréal
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: March 2022
Photos: iStock.com/FatCamera et GettyImages/Antonio_Diaz
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
PUBLIC HEALTH AGENCY OF CANADA. “Physical Activity Tips for Children (5-11 years).” 2018. www.canada.ca
PUBLIC HEALTH AGENCY OF CANADA. “Children and physical activity.” 2016. www.canada.ca
INSTITUT DE LA STATISTIQUE DU QUÉBEC. “Quebecers’ recreational physical activity in 2018‑2019.” statistique.quebec.ca
KINO-QUÉBEC. “Pour une population québécoise physiquement active : des recommandations.” 2020. www.education.gouv.qc.ca
MINISTÈRE DE L’ÉDUCATION ET DE L’ENSEIGNEMENT SUPÉRIEUR. “Physical Education and Health.” www.education.gouv.qc.ca
PARTICIPACTION. “ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.” 2020. participaction.com
PARTICIPACTION. “Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth: Ages 5-17.” www.participaction.com
Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Physical activity for children and youth.” 2018. soinsdenosenfants.cps.ca
Canadian Paediatric Society. Position statement. “Digital media: Promoting healthy screen use in school-aged children and adolescents.” 2019. cps.ca
CANADIAN SOCIETY FOR EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY. “Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Children and Youth (5-17 years): An Integration of Physical of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Sleep.” csepguidelines.ca
STATISTICS CANADA. “Overweight and obesity based on measured body mass index, by age group and sex.” 2020. www150.statcan.gc.ca
STATISTICS CANADA. “Physical activity and screen time among Canadian children and youth, 2016 and 2017.” 2019. www150.statcan.gc.ca