Topic updated: February 2013

Exercise & Fitness for Children

Parents and other adults can guide children in making healthy food choices and becoming more physically active. One of the best ways to do this is to practice healthy eating and staying physically active as a family.

How will healthy eating and physical activity help my child?

All children need healthy eating and physical activity. Healthy eating and physical activity may help children:

  • Grow.
  • Learn.
  • Build strong bones and muscles.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Reduce future chances of developing diabetes and heart disease.
  • Feel good about themselves.

How are my child's eating and activity habits formed?

Parents play a big part in shaping children's habits on eating and physical activity. When parents eat foods that are lower in fat and added sugars and high in fiber, children learn to like these foods as well. If your child does not like a new food right away, don't be upset. Children often need to see a new food many times before they will try it.

Parents have an effect on children's physical activity habits as well. See the end of this brochure for resources that can help you and your child. Continue reading to learn about specific actions you can take to help your child develop healthy habits.

A powerful example for your child is to be active yourself. You can set a good example by going for a walk or bike ride instead of watching TV, playing a video game, or surfing the Internet. Playing ball or jumping rope with your children shows them that being active is fun.

Take the time to talk to your children about how a certain food or physical activity may help them. For example, when going for your daily walk, bring your children with you and let them pick the route. Discuss how walking helps you feel better and is a fun way to spend time together. It also offsets calories eaten and inactive time spent in front of TV screens or computers.

Use your children's food choices as teaching moments. Speak up when you see unhealthy eating habits. Direct children to healthier options or say, "You can have a little of that, but not too much." Talk to them about why an overly salty or heavily sugared snack is not the best choice.

You can also praise your children when they choose a healthy item like fruit or yogurt. Use comments like these:

  • "Great choice!"
  • "You're giving your body what it needs with that snack!"
  • "I like those too."

With physical activity, try upbeat phrases like these to keep your child excited:

  • "You run so fast, I can hardly keep up!"
  • "You are building a strong, healthy heart!"
  • "Let's walk 10 more minutes to make us stronger."

What should my child eat?

Just like adults, children need to eat a wide variety of foods. Every 5 years, the U.S. Government releases a set of guidelines on healthy eating (see Resources at the end of this booklet). The guidelines suggest balancing calories with physical activity. The guidelines also recommend improving eating habits to promote health, reduce the risk of disease, and reduce overweight and obesity.

The guidelines encourage Americans ages 2 years and older to eat a variety of healthy foods. Suggested items include the following:

  • Fruits, vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds, and whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
  • Lean meats, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, soy products, and eggs

The guidelines also suggest reducing salt (sodium), refined grains, added sugars, and solid fats (like lard, butter, and margarine). Added sugars and solid fats often occur in pizzas, sodas, sugar-sweetened drinks, desserts like cookies or cake, and fast foods. These foods are the main sources of high fat and sugar among children and teens.

Another important guideline is to make sure your children eat breakfast to spark the energy they need to focus in school. Not eating breakfast is often linked to overweight and obesity, especially in children and teens.

Read more about healthy eating and physical activity across the life span from the Weight Control Information Network of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

jump rope

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