Children and exercise

Lynn Hunter, MSK Physiotherapist

The importance of physical activity during childhood

30 April 2024

As adults, we know how important it is to stay active and get regular exercise. From maintaining a healthy heart, to reducing the risk of certain kinds of cancer, there are countless reasons to look after our physical health.

But while we’re trying to hit our daily step-count or aiming for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week,1 it’s possible to assume that exercise comes naturally to our children. Whether you’re chasing a toddler around the playground or watching your teenager’s school sports day, it can seem as though kids are always on the move.

All that activity is great, but it’s important to understand that our children need just as much structure and diversity in their exercise as we do. And when they get older and more independent, their relationship to physical activity can change, which means they need the right support and encouragement to keep moving forward.

Exercise through the ages

Exercise plays a crucial role throughout all of our lives. As adults, it’s fundamental to our physical and mental health while, during our later years, it helps us maintain a healthy weight and slow down the deterioration of our muscles, bones and joints – check out our Ageing well hub for more details.

But for our children, it’s key to their physical and cognitive development, as well as their overall health. As they grow, the type of activity they need evolves accordingly.

Babies and infants – From their earliest years, exercise is pivotal to the growth of your child’s muscles, bones and joints. Crawling, grasping, ‘tummy time’ and pushing or pulling movements help them start to build their muscles, which is important for their development, as well as for posture and balance. These kinds of movements also help them learn, explore and develop their coordination.

Toddlers – Once they’re able to walk, it’s recommended that children under the age of five should be active for at least three hours a day.2 This can include playing, running, climbing and light activity like walking or even just standing.

A variety of activities helps further the development of the musculoskeletal (MSK) system with functional movement patterns, at the same time as keeping their minds active and stimulated for more cognitive development. It’s also important in helping them develop a strong immune system and maintain a healthy weight, which can help reduce the risk of developing obesity or type 2 diabetes in later life.

Children and teenagers – From the age of five or six, children should start to introduce around an hour of moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity each day.4 They need to be dividing their efforts between aerobic exercise, like walking, swimming, dancing and sports, along with activities that will help strengthen muscles and bones, such as gymnastics and running.

Aside from helping them maintain a healthy weight, it also helps with the development of their bones and muscles which are growing at their fastest rate at this time in their lives. So, it is recommended they do higher intensity and resistance activities three days a week.2

Physical activity is also beneficial to their mental health. Regular exercise releases endorphins and increases serotonin and dopamine levels, which all help improve your child’s self-esteem, increase their concentration, lower stress and encourage a better night’s sleep.2

Team sports can also help children improve their social skills and improve confidence and communication skills. They also help them develop personal strengths like resilience, discipline, concentration and co-ordination.

What are the challenges for parents?

Despite all the benefits, many children drift away from sport and exercise – particularly as they move into their teenage years. The World Health Organization estimates that, globally, 85% of adolescent girls and 78% of boys don’t do enough physical activity.5

It’s not always easy to understand why this drop-off occurs, but the answer can be both physical and cultural.

Physical challenge

The listlessness that we may see in children going through puberty, which can often be mistaken for laziness, could be due to the enormous amount of energy being used to build muscle, bone, neural connections and sexual maturity.6

This means there may be less in the tank for sports and exercise, which can cause a noticeable dip in motivation and get-up-and-go. This typically begins earlier in girls than boys because they start to mature at an earlier age. 

Culture clash

At the same time, external pressures increasingly impact young people. School becomes more demanding and, as they become more independent, they may want to explore other past-times or spend more time socialising with friends. All of this can push sport and exercise down the list of priorities.

The modern world, with our increasing reliance on technology, is one of the most common reasons that people – both adults and children – are becoming generally less active.

For young people, social media and video games can take up a lot of the time that might otherwise have been spent exploring outdoors, riding bikes or playing sports.

What can we do?

Encouraging young people to stay active as they get older, or to get more active if they’ve let it fall by the wayside, might sound like a challenge, but there are lots of things we can do:

  • Lead by example – show them how it’s done. When you’re fit and active yourself, they’ll be more likely to follow your lead. The more active you are, the more normal it will feel.
  • Make it a way of life – make exercise part of your family’s daily routine and something you go out and do together.
  • Mix it up – think of different types of activity to keep it interesting.
  • Make it fun – focus on feel-good activities that boost confidence.
  • Make it easy – give kids a safe and convenient place be active.
  • Make time – as children get older, their schedules can become busier and busier. Try to set aside some dedicated time.
  • Spread it out – the recommended daily minutes of exercise don’t have to all be in one go. It shouldn’t feel like a chore or a punishment, so spread it out through the day when you can and try to encourage activity outside of school.
  • Listen – find out what your child enjoys or what interests them and tailor activities to fit.

Ultimately, inactive children are more likely to be inactive adults, increasing the risk of developing serious health conditions from heart disease and cancer to depression and diabetes.2

A decline in motivation and physical activity is natural but, with your help, kids can continue to get the exercise they need to maintain and improve their health, now and far into the future.

Onward support

Getting active your way | AXA Health

Benefits & tips for exercising outdoors | AXA Health

Exercise goals | AXA Health

LFC Family Fit


  1. Physical activity guidelines for adults aged 19 to 64 - NHS
  2. Exercise for children and young people - Great Ormond Street Hospital
  3. Advice for parents of overweight children - NHS
  4. Physical activity guidelines for children and young people - NHS
  5. 85% of adolescent girls don’t do enough physical activity - World Health Organization
  6. Less physical activity in adolescence likely rooted in biology - Science Daily