Nieman: Make exercise fun to set kids up for a healthy life

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Organizations such as the Canadian Pediatric Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization regularly review and update their recommendations regarding the ideal amount of exercise children and adolescents should aim for.

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Sometimes it is based on research and sometimes on consensus.

New research done in Oxford in the U.K., out of the Centre for Movement, Occupational and Rehabilitation Sciences (MOReS), looked at adolescents aged 13 to 14 years in terms of the intensity and duration of physical activity.

Researchers were specifically interested in how much exercise is required to achieve cardiorespiratory fitness.

As we all know, one of the common excuses when people fail to exercise is that there is not enough time. In adults, we already have solid research that shorter, but more intense periods of physical activity lead to a higher level of cardiorespiratory fitness. But is this true for children also?

The Oxford group discovered that 20 minutes of daily vigorous physical activity was associated with better cardiorespiratory fitness.; after 20 minutes the benefits plateaued. We now know that optimal cardiorespiratory fitness can be achieved with much shorter periods of activities than previously recommended.

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Both the Canadian Pediatric Society and WHO currently recommend 60 minutes per day of physical activity; yet only 23 per cent of adolescents reported activities that meet those recommendations. And this was before COVID.

A recent online article in JAMA Pediatrics reported that because of the pandemic, children and adolescents experienced measurable reductions in physical activity. This is one more item on the list of unintended negative consequences created via well-meaning public health regulators and influencers.

The Oxford study reported on cardiorespiratory fitness specifically; the focus was not on preventing obesity.

As expected, the pandemic led to an increase in obesity: more time indoors; more screen time; more emotional eating and less access to sports facilities created a perfect storm.

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As important as exercise may be when it comes to treating and preventing obesity, two expressions will forever be stuck in my mind: We get fit in the gym, but we lose weight in the kitchen; We cannot outrun our fork.

In other words, if we want to move the needle as a society, helping children and adolescents maintain an optimal growth pattern, we need to mention exercise, make realistic recommendations, and provide ample opportunities to engage in physical activities, but we should not be surprised by poor outcomes caused by neglecting the more important aspect of healthy nutrition.

Groups like KidSport are a great entry point for children to get involved in physical activity and start to build a lifelong connection with the benefits of exercise. Postmedia files
Groups like KidSport are a great entry point for children to get involved in physical activity and start to build a lifelong connection with the benefits of exercise. Postmedia files Photo by Mark van Manen /PNG

Not so long ago I dusted off a book in my study written by Dr. Ken Cooper, also known as the father of aerobics. Cooper indeed is the brain behind the word aerobics; he invented the word and has researched and written extensively about the benefits of exercise. The term “Coopering” oneself is used by some with tongue-in-cheek humour when they strive to reach a higher level of cardiorespiratory fitness.

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Cooper’s book in my study is simply titled “Kid Fitness.” It is a great resource for any parent who would like to teach a child how to make exercise fun.

I remember running the Calgary Marathon in 2004 and at the time the organizers came up with a great idea: invite children to run 42 kilometres, the standard marathon distance.

We know from Cooper’s research that allowing a human being to run a marathon before age 18 is unwise; the risk of damage to growth plates and various other injuries is serious and significant. So why were children invited to run a marathon in Calgary?

The fact is that the organizers told families to let the child start the run 42 days before the actual Calgary marathon; the idea was to run one kilometre per day and on the day of the race the final kilometre was completed; finisher medals were hung around the necks of very proud athletes and one can only imagine the smiles on the faces of parents and cheering spectators that day.

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Ironically, in the same journal where the Oxford research was published (Pediatrics), there is also an article titled “Confronting Child Maltreatment in Youth Sports.” In this article, we are reminded that close to 50 per cent of pediatric sports injuries are due to overuse; that the percentage of children who regularly participate in an organized team sport is on a downward trend and that kids quit most sports by age 11.

The prevalence of coaches and parents pushing athletes too hard and peer-to-peer bullying in youth sports is under-reported. The recent media coverage of physical and mental damage inflicted on gymnasts, both in the U.S. and Canada, highlighted the need to be more proactive in ensuring that physical activities are safe. The United States Center for Safe Sport has developed a parent toolkit that provides concrete recommendations to prevent abuse.

Dr, Nieman has completed 114 marathons and is the author of 101 Finish Lines. For more information, visit

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