By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
Two girls throw a netball and one boy wears cricket gear

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Physical activity levels go down as children move from mid-childhood into adolescence. 
  • Most research shows that more boys than girls are getting the physical activity they need to keep their minds and bodies healthy. 
Young people have lots of demands on their time, so they can find it hard to be active. But physical activity keeps teenage bodies and minds fit and healthy – and  during adolescence, your child needs at least 60 minutes of activity every day.

Why physical activity is important

Being active is an important part of your child’s daily routine. It’s a great way to spend time with friends, meet new people, feel good and break up long stretches of sitting and studying.

Being active every day can help:

  • improve heart health and fitness
  • develop strong muscles, bones and good posture
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • improve concentration and memory
  • learn new skills
  • increase self-confidence
  • reduce stress
  • make and keep friendships
  • improve sleep.

Not getting enough physical activity can put your child at risk of overweight and obesity, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and type-2 diabetes.

Best kinds of physical activity

The best physical activity is done at a moderate or vigorous level.

Moderate activities make your child gently ‘huff and puff’. These could include brisk walking, dancing, bike-riding, swimming laps of a pool, jogging, and helping with inside and outside chores.

Vigorous activities increase your child’s heart rate and make him ‘huff and puff’ even more. These activities could be any game with lots of running – formal ones such as basketball, or less formal such as chasey. They could also be running or jogging, or sports such as soccer, hockey, swimming and football.

Your child can get ‘huffing and puffing’ in lots of different ways – anything from organised sport to active transport and unplanned activities will do!

Getting enough physical activity

Australian guidelines recommend children aged 5-18 years have at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. For many young people, this physical activity doesn’t just happen – it needs to be planned.

When you and your child think about how to get enough physical activity into her daily schedule, the following points might help:

  • Where can your child be active? How much space do you have at home, in the backyard, at the local park, walking track or local pool?
  • What local options are low cost or free to use?
  • Who are your child’s ‘active’ friends? Who can you visit to help your child be active?
  • Who else can help your child be active if you haven’t got time?
  • Are there any young people’s groups that could be useful?
  • What activities can your family plan to do to be active together?

Your child doesn’t have to get his daily 60 minutes of physical activity in one hit. He can build it up over the day through a range of different activities. This makes it easier to get enough and to do even more than 60 minutes.

School sport isn’t always enough
You might think your child will get all the physical activity she needs in physical education (PE) classes or from running around at lunchtime. Unfortunately, this might not be the case.

In PE classes, students spend only about one-third of their time being moderately to vigorously active – the rest of the time is spent learning about sports, exercise and the human body. And in their lunch break, teenagers are often busy socialising, eating and doing other slow-paced things.

In one Australian study, fewer than half the students were found to be moderately to vigorously active at lunchtime. The physical activity your child gets at school probably isn’t going to be enough.

Children who don’t like physical activity

Not all young people are keen on physical activity. If this sounds like your child, you can start by giving him lots of praise and encouragement when he does get active.

There are also a few other things you could try:

  • When you’re active yourself, you give your child a great role model for physical activity. If you can get her to be active with you, she’ll get a chance to see how good it can feel.
  • You might need to explore a range of different organised and recreational activities to find one your child likes. Activities like walking to the shops or going for a bike ride might be good options.
  • Physical activity isn’t just about winning. Simple, non-competitive activities that allow your child to socialise in a positive way can help him feel good about having a go, rather than feeling pressure to be the best.
  • Some activities and groups involve lots of physical activity but don’t make a big deal of it – for example, community youth groups like Scouts and Girl Guides. When kids get involved in groups like these, they might also feel a sense of achievement, which makes it more likely that they’ll have another go.
  • If your child’s been put off physical activity by a bad experience in the past, you can help her practise her skills and build confidence. For example, you could visit a local tennis court for a bit of hit-and-giggle. When there are no other kids around, your child might be more likely to have a go. And the bonus is you get to spend some fun time together.
  • Your child doesn’t have to play to be involved. Plenty of young people take part in physical activity by umpiring or coaching younger children. This could be the way that your child finds the activity he enjoys.

Balancing physical activity with screen time

One reason why young people aren’t getting enough active, outdoor time is because they’re spending a lot of time sitting in front of screens doing things like watching TV, social networking on the internet, playing video games, texting on mobiles and so on. They might also be having big sleep-ins and spending lots of time on the phone.

Screen time is an OK way to spend a small part of each day, but other things are better for children’s development. These things include physical activity, homework, reading and time with family and friends.

According to federal government guidelines:

  • children aged 5-12 years should spend no more than two hours a day using electronic media for entertainment (computer games, internet, TV), especially during daylight hours
  • children aged 12-18 years should spend no more than two hours a day using electronic media, unless it’s for educational purposes.

It might be hard to stop your child from using electronic media altogether. But you can try to set some limits:

  • You could start by thinking about how much screen time your child has every day. If it’s more than you’d like, you could work out a daily schedule for physical activity and electronic media use.
  • One way to cut down on screen time is to have all your screens – TV, computer, mobile phones – in your home’s family areas, rather than the bedrooms.
  • Setting limits on the use of mobile phones and home phones can help clear time for homework and family activities. These limits should apply to you as well as the kids.

Screen time isn’t always the problem. For example, you might be worried that homework is limiting your child’s physical activity. If so, try talking to teachers about out how much homework she’s supposed to be doing, then look at how much she’s actually doing. If you think the impact of homework is too big, you might like to talk to the teacher to work out a compromise.

Physical activity and children with special needs

Physical activity is just as important for children with special needs, even if there are extra challenges. Many organised activities have been modified or are supported to help children with special needs have a go. Check with support groups or sporting organisations to see what’s available in your area.

Your family could also try making time to do physically active things together that work with your child’s needs.

Outdoor physical activity is especially important for young people with special needs. Being outdoors is a good way for children to get the vitamin D they need for strong bones and muscles.

Video keeping teenagers fit and active

In this short video, parents and teenagers talk about the importance of a fit and healthy lifestyle. As one dad says, ‘When my daughter does exert herself, she feels happier and healthier’. The video includes lots of everyday ideas about the ways these families fit physical activity and fitness into their busy lives. Many of them choose activities they can all do together.