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Find Safe, Fun Ways to Keep Young Kids Active

In a world that hypes baby yoga and baby swimming classes, can baby football be far behind?  

Physical activity for the very young is vital, but avoid such extremes, experts say.

"The norm now is for kids to be inactive, and your child is never too young to begin movement," says Eric Small, M.D., who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on sports medicine and fitness. "But on the other end of the spectrum we have parents enrolling kids 1, 2 and 3 years old in classes they are not ready for. I just treated a preschooler for knee pain from being overstretched in a yoga class."

On the other hand, some busy parents keep kids in one place to aid child care. "We containerize kids for safe-keeping and convenience," says Jim Pavarnik, Ph.D., president of the North American Society for Pediatric Exercise Medicine. Some spend hours in car seats or strollers. But kids have to move to build cognitive and motor skills and to learn that physical activity is fun.

The experts recommend:

  • Toddlers should have at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity a day. Preschoolers need at least an hour.

  • Toddlers need an hour or more each day in free play. That could mean riding, pushing, pulling and climbing safe objects, for instance.

  • Toddlers and preschoolers shouldn't be inactive for more than an hour at a time except when sleeping.

Activity doesn't have to be complex or costly. Play patty-cake, for instance.

Activity builds bones

One payoff for activity may be better bones. A study of 460 children (average age 5) compared those who did 40 minutes of vigorous activity a day, like hopping, running and jumping, with those who didn't.

The study, printed in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in July 2004, found the active kids had:

  • 9 percent more bone area and 12 percent greater bone strength in boys.

  • 7 percent more bone area and 9 percent greater bone strength in girls.