The kids are not alright. They’re moving less, and COVID-19 has only made things worse. A recent study found that the impact of COVID-19 on physical activity levels and sedentary behaviors for children and adolescents is even greater than expected. In the face of cancelled school sports, disbanded after-school programs, aborted summer camps, closed beaches and parks, and cooped-up kids in small spaces with working parents having to double time as teachers/coaches/camp counselors – we are facing a physical and mental health crisis. As of March 26, 2020, more than 150 million children and adolescents in 165 countries have been affected by these closures. Under such situations, physical and mental health problems are significant concerns, scientists find.
All of us – kids and adults – need movement to stay healthy, happy and smart. Physical activity, as we all know, builds strong hearts and strong muscles, and helps us to maintain a healthy weight. A compelling Stanford study found that a single session of exercise changes 9,815 molecules in our blood. Studies show that movement is even more essential for our mental health, warding off depression, and even doing well in school. Conversely, not moving poses significant risks to our bodies, our brains and our peace of mind. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is associated with the top 10 leading causes of death around the world.
This is not new news. Yet, our over 70% of adolescents globally are failing to meet recommended levels of physical activity and the physical activity report card for our kids, aged 6 to 17, is a startling “D-“.
So, what can we do about it? Here are some ideas to get your kids (and yourself!) in motion.
1. All movement counts. Remarkably, people who live the longest generally don’t exercise, they just move. Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones, calls it “moving naturally.” This means that walking counts or taking the stairs instead of the elevator counts.
2. Add motion into what you’re already doing. Small tweaks like walking to a play date, instead of driving – or parking a little further away – can cumulatively add up.
3. Pitch in around the house. Encourage your kids to pitch in with household chores. Cleaning up the house can be a great way to get a little more movement.
4. Infuse motion into learning. Ask your child’s teacher to add a little movement into the next virtual class. Or, volunteer to do it yourself! Follow the Finnish example, regarded as having the best educational system in the world. Here, children are given 15 minutes of free play every hour!
5. Do it yourself. Your kids are watching you. The best way to encourage them to move is to do it yourself. Model movement.
6. Create family rituals organized around movement. Holidays are a good time to introduce family rituals like an after-dinner walk around the block. When practiced consistently, these rituals can set kids up for a lifetime of regularly infused motion.
7. Focus on what feels good. Ironically, focusing on the health benefits of movement can reduce our motivation to keep moving. This is especially true for kids. Researcher Michele Segar, author of No Sweat, found that people who exercise for more energy are more likely to sustain a regular exercise routine compared with those who exercise for health benefits. At Playworks, an organization that helps kids to stay active, the focus is on play – not exercise.
8. Let them lead the way. The more you can encourage your kids to move and play on their own terms, the better. In fact, researchers like Peter Gray, Ph.D., professor of psychology (emeritus) at Boston College explains, that free play helps children to be less prone to anxiety and depression in the future.
The kids are alright – when they’re moving. Especially in the time of COVID, let’s help to keep them in motion.