Fun and Engaging Exercises to Do with Your Kids This Father's Day!

Father with kidsExercise for children is a topic on which I’m sure many people (and not just parents) have a fairly clear idea of its benefits, necessity, and opinions on what approaches might be best. As both a coach who trains children and a parent of two teenagers, I have some experience and, hopefully, some useful perspectives to share. 

Games, games, games

   I firmly believe the simpler, the better. Play frisbee, throw and catch a ball, play football, play hide and seek with younger children. Whilst structured exercise and more formal sports training are of great value, the easiest, cheapest, and often most accessible way to get children (and parents) moving regularly is to play games. The movement patterns involved in playing frisbee or throwing and catching a ball are various:

  • gait (running/walking)
  • squatting and hinging (when you jump)
  • lunging (when you need to move laterally quickly to make that catch)
  • rotation (as your torso twists to follow the path of a thrown object)
  • pushing (as you throw forwards/overhead)
  • pulling (as you catch)

   This variety and the nature of the movement patterns is really how we as humans have evolved to move; to throw, to carry, and to run. These activities have a cardiovascular component, a bodyweight strength component, and a motor skills component. There are so many positives.

   Whilst this may all sound a little obvious, I challenge most parents to spend 20 or 30 mins playing a simple ball game with an energetic child and to not feel like they have done a decent amount of exercise. In the main, this is also a cheap way to exercise; the cost of a football, or a basketball, or a frisbee. No gym memberships, no soft-play fees, no swimming pool entrance costs. Also, context is important – not everyone has a big garden or a park on their doorstep, but even in urban environments there are basketball courts, and smaller urban parks and green spaces for use.

   Other examples of great activities for kids include gymnastics, martial arts, and dance; primarily aerobic activities using only bodyweight, with diverse movement patterns, and often with a social component where they get to interact with their peers.

   Finally, basic play and games don’t involve going on an app, subscribing to a YouTube channel, or using any technology.

Variety/Consistency/regularity

   Exposure to lots of different types of sports is great, especially for younger children. Give them the opportunity to explore different activities. On the flip side, I also recommend trying to adhere to a routine and stick with an activity longer term rather than flip-flopping. This can have real benefits; it teaches perseverance, and improves confidence in children when they see their progress improve in the long run. I have seen this first hand with children who join the running club, and attend week in and week out, for months and years. Their confidence really grows.

   In 5-18 year olds the recommended activity level is 60 minutes, and up to several hours, every day of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Children don’t require as much recovery time as adults, so exercising on consecutive days is not a problem.  So, unless children are sick or injured, they should be exercising.  Just make sure they are well hydrated and getting good sleep and nutrition.

Incidental exercise 

   Walking more, cycling more, and less reliance on cars for journeys where possible. This is obvious but important. 65% of primary school pupils are driven to school by car. Car travel to primary school is up by 6% in the last ten years. Is there a real necessity to drive or is this about convenience? Prioritise walking and cycling over car journeys.

Attention span/concentration/endurance

   For structured exercise (in a coaching setting) 40-60 minutes is an appropriate session time. For younger children, 40 minutes of focused training is a good benchmark. In a non-structured (play/games) environment, I am of the view that children can exercise for hours without much of an upper limit, beyond the need to sleep and eat. 

Kids parent

Motivations and drivers 

   Many adults tend to train for health or aesthetic reasons. For children, the driver is likely to be having fun, spending time with friends and family, forming social connections, and learning/exploring movement, without even realising it. As they get older, a competitive element will inevitably come into play; sports days, and club or school-level competitions. Foster the fun and participation factors over competition for younger children.

Older children – gym culture and social media

   The gym environment (and body building culture) – for me this is a ‘no’ for children and teenagers. The gym environment and body-building culture encourage (whether it intends to or not) exercise for aesthetics more than for function, health, and fun. Most commercial gym environments are set up to train for strength and have a strong focus on muscle-building modalities – look at the floor space dedicated to weight training in most gyms. This is a product of gym culture having its roots in body building from the 1970’s and 1980’s. With the increase in mental health issues for younger populations, this is too much of risk in my opinion. We need our children to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.

   At the moment, I do not believe that gym culture has developed or progressed enough in this regard. Unrealistic role models (actors/celebrities/social media fitness influencers) have played a big part in this. We are seeing the effect of this in body dysmorphia rates, eating disorders, and the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

As a caveat, and on a positive note, we are beginning to see more focus on mobility training, group exercise, and practices such as yoga, Pilates and calisthenics within commercial gym environments. However, overall, in most gyms this is still a smaller part of the product offering, and relative uptake tends to be lower.

Current issues – technology, the food environment, convenience culture

   In England, 1 in 3 children leaving primary school is either overweight or obese and 1 in 5 are obese. The contributing factors are complex – diet, sedentary behaviour, increasing use of technology, financial deprivation etc. Exercise is one part of the fix, but on its own not enough.

   Schools are generally underfunded for sports provision, so PE lessons may be only 1-2 hours per week. Unfortunately, in this context, we can’t rely on schools to provide an adequate amount of activity for our children, and we as parents need to try to plug the gap. However, there are other sources of support; local running clubs, local swim clubs, activity groups such as Cubs/Scouts/Explorers, and so on. I encourage parents to take some time to research local options as there is often more available than people realise, and they are often subsidised (e.g. Scouts).

   We need to be disciplined about food choices for ourselves and our children, remembering that food prepared at home, from scratch, and using fresh ingredients is the way to go. We are surrounded by convenience food.

The makeup of any high street is testament to this; where there were once butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers, we now have coffee (cake) shops and fast food outlets. In combination with the marketing strategies of food companies and the lack of any significant government intervention, we need to be strong and disciplined as parents. Also, I would recommend parents find out more regarding the quality of school meals for their children, as this is an area which does not get enough attention.

   Technology is the area that I think parents struggle with the most; how to keep its use limited and reasonable.

The latest research points towards the importance of role modelling with technology use (i.e. not being on devices unnecessarily or excessively ourselves as parents), and not using technology as a punishment or reward for children (i.e. giving children more time on devices for good behaviour and vice versa). Also, involving children in the rule making process around screen use, rather than simply imposing rules upon them.

Stay strong and healthy as a family,

Alex Kelly