Physical Activity for Children

The rate of childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate, doubling over the past 30 years. Obesity and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure risks are directly related.

In South Carolina, approximately one out of six high school students are overweight. An overweight adolescent has a higher chance of having obesity as an adult. Additionally, children with obesity and overweight children may experience low self-esteem and exclusion from social groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and adolescents be physically active for at least 60 minutes daily. Over half of South Carolina adolescents do not meet this recommendation. Sedentary activities such as watching TV, playing video games, and computer use contribute to these high rates of childhood obesity. The other main contributor is unhealthy eating; children eating high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks helped lead to this epidemic. Meeting physical activity recommendations and transitioning to healthier snack options can help children maintain a healthy weight.

Benefits of Physical Activity

Understanding the consequences of chronic obesity and the benefits of physical activity are imperative to encourage youth to be physically active every day. Some advantages of physical activity are:

  • Improves thinking in school and home
  • Helps release “feel good” hormones
    • Reduces anxiety and stress
    • Improves mood
    • Promotes relaxation
  • Promotes a positive self-image
  • Manages weight
    • Helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints
    • Builds lean muscle and reduces fat.
  • Enhances flexibility and posture
  • Reduces health risk of:
    • Cardiovascular disease
    • Type 2 Diabetes
    • Some Cancers
    • High Blood Pressure
  • Encourages socialization through organized group activities

How Much is Needed?

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend children and teens (ages 6-17) be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day. Combined with eating right, this amount of physical activity can help youth stay at a healthy weight.

Jungle Gym Michelle Altman, ©2021 Clemson Extension

Jungle Gym
Michelle Altman, ©2021 Clemson Extension

The recommended 60 minutes can be done all at once or broken up into shorter sessions, such as 15-minute intervals. All children benefit from regular physical activity, regardless of their ability, shape, and size. There should be a good balance of activities that stretch, strengthen, and give the heart a workout.

By allowing children to choose their favorite activities, they can make physical activity fun! There are three types of physical activities: aerobic, bone strengthening, and muscle strengthening. These three types of exercise can and should be combined in the daily recommendation. Below are examples of each type in every day play.

Muscle Strengthening: Muscle-strengthening games and activities get children to test their strength.

Examples include:

  • Walking
  • Dancing
  • Riding A Bike
  • Tug-Of-War
  • Climbing on Jungle Gyms
  • Some forms of Yoga

Aerobic: Aerobic workouts and activities help to strengthen the heart and lungs. These activities typically feature children moving rhythmically for a long period of time. Aerobic workouts can be organized into two categories moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity.

Kids Playing Soccer Ellie Lane, ©Clemson Extension

Kids Playing Soccer
Ellie Lane, ©2021 Clemson Extension

Moderate-intensity activities include:

  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Baseball
  • Softball

Examples of vigorous-intensity activities are:

  • Dancing
  • Playing Flag Football
  • Soccer

Bone Strengthening: Bone strengthening workouts promote bone growth and strength. Some activities promoting bone strength are:

  • Hopscotch
  • Running
  • Jumping Rope
Sidewalk Chalk Hopscotch Ellie Lane, ©2021 Clemson Extension

Sidewalk Chalk Hopscotch
Ellie Lane, ©2021 Clemson Extension

Children and adolescents do not need to change how they exercise and what they eat overnight. They can just start with one new, good change, and add another one every day or so. Youth should begin physical activity slowly, then gradually build to higher levels. This reduces the risk of injury and the feeling of defeat from setting unrealistic goals.

Children Ages 6-11

Kids should move more and have fun while they move. They need to aim for at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day, or most days.

Children who have positive experiences with physical activity at a young age are more likely to be regularly active throughout life. In general, children can start participating in team sports at age six, because they begin to understand teamwork at this age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children naturally start to do things in groups about eight to 10 years of age.


Like younger children, teens should get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day, or most days. Today’s teens are busy with school, after-school activities, and perhaps a job. However, they do not always lead an active lifestyle because of their busy schedules.

When kids hit the teen years, physical activity drops dramatically. Over half of young people aged 13-17 are not vigorously active on a regular basis, and about 20% report no recent physical activity. As adolescents get older, they become less active. Females are less physically active than males, and black females are less active than white females.

Anything that gets their bodies moving counts! Teens should choose an activity that interests them—bicycling, in-line skating, swimming, family walks after dinner (also a sharing time), karate, kick-boxing, dancing, or hiking.

Moreover, by getting involved in an athletic program, teens can burn energy, meet new friends, and learn teamwork and leadership skills. Regular physical activity improves bone strength, builds lean muscle, and decreases body fat.

TV Time

Every day, on average, 8 to 13-year-olds spend:

  • about four hours watching TV, videos, DVDs, and prerecorded shows
  • more than an hour on the computer
  • over an hour playing video games

For adolescents specifically, almost 21% of students watch television for at least three hours every school day. Moreover, 43% of teenagers report using video and computer games for at least three hours. This includes social media use, watching videos, and using their smartphones. With a one-hour reduction in these statistics, teens and children would be able to exercise and meet the daily CDC recommendation.

Limit Screen Time: Research shows families with set limitations on screen time saw an almost three-hour reduction in youth media use. This time could be spent having a walk with family or playing a pick-up game of basketball or football.

As a family, to limit screen time, agree to limit TV/DVD/video watching or gaming to two hours or less per day. Turn off Saturday morning cartoons and go bicycling to the park or the library. Play with a ball instead of a video game. Play outside with the dog for 20 or 30 minutes in the afternoons.

TV Time Activities: If you do watch TV, make that time more active and figure out ways to get your heart pumping. Exercise using a free app like Home Workout – No Equipment or search for an exercise video on YouTube. Children and parents can have a contest to see who can do the most push-ups or jumping jacks during a commercial break.

Exercise Ideas for the Family

  1. Establish a routine. Set aside time each day as activity time—walk, jog, skate, cycle, or swim. Adults need at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week; children 60 minutes every day, or most days.
  2. Have an activity party. Center the next birthday party on physical activity. Try backyard Olympics or relay races. Have a bowling or skating party.
  3. Set up a home gym. Use canned foods or other household items as weights. Stairs can substitute for stair machines.
  4. Move it! When you talk on the phone, lift weights, or walk around. Instead of sitting through TV commercials, get up and move. Remember to limit TV watching and computer time.
  5. Give activity gifts—active games or sports equipment, which encourages physical activity.

What Parents Can Do

To encourage your children to be more physically active:

  • Set a positive example by being active yourself because adults set the tone for active living in the family. Get your family to join you and have fun together. Train with your child to run a 5K race or participate in a walk.
  • Make physical activity part of your family’s daily routine.
    • Play active games together. Tumble in the leaves or play catch.
    • Designate time for family walks, such as after dinner. This can be sharing time, also.
    • Challenge your child to jump rope for five minutes, then you try it!
    • Get an aerobic dance or exercise tape for kids and exercise together.
  • Give your children opportunities to be active. Take them places where they can be physically active such as parks and indoor trampoline parks.
  • Be supportive of your child’s participation in physical activities, whether team sports or activities such as in-line skating, skateboarding, football, softball, or dancing.
    • Take time to help them practice their favorite activity
  • Offer positive reinforcement when your child participates in physical activities and encouragement when they express an interest in new activities.
  • Make physical activity fun and something your child enjoys. This could be a team sport, individual sport, and or activities such as walking, running, bicycling, swimming, hiking, canoeing, playground activities, and free-time play.
  • Turn special occasions into active events. Celebrate a birthday by biking, having a Frisbee ™ match, or playing football.
  • Keep the activity age-appropriate and safe, providing protective equipment such as helmets, eye protection, mouth guards, cups, and wrist, elbow, and knee pads.
  • Find a convenient place to be active on a regular basis.
  • Limit TV and video game time to two hours or less per day.

Always be alert to any extreme behaviors from your child—excessive dieting, over-exercising, or an unusually sedentary lifestyle at the computer or in front of the TV.

What Communities Can Do

Communities play an important role in children’s physical activity, also. They can support more activity among youth and families by:

  • Providing quality K-12 physical education classes taught by physical education specialists, preferably every day.
  • Offering physical activities that are fun, build adolescents’ and young adults’ confidence in their ability to be physically active, and involve friends, peers, and parents.
  • Providing appropriate physically active role models for youths.
  • Developing and promoting the use of safe, well-maintained sidewalks, bicycle paths, trails, parks, and recreation facilities.
  • Allowing the use of school buildings and community facilities for safe participation in physical activity.
  • Offering a variety of inclusive extracurricular programs in schools and community recreation centers to accommodate everyone
  • Encouraging health care providers to tell adolescents and young adults the reasons it is important to include physical activity in their lives.

For related information, refer to HGIC 4030, Physical Activity Pyramid, HGIC 4031, Physical Activity for Adults, and HGIC 4151, Fluid Needs.

Other Resources

  1. This is a screen time vs. lean time infographic. Use this tool to learn how to limit screen time for your child by redirecting them to something more active.
  2. Getting an appropriate amount of sleep at night is good for your overall health. This site shows how much sleep a person needs by age.
  3. This resource outlines how to build strong bones through diet and physical activity.
  4. We Can! is a program dedicated to getting families to live healthier lives through diet and exercise.
  5. Eating right is as important as physical activity. Using appropriate portions, you can eat well and feel full on less food.
  6. My Plate replaced the Food Pyramid. The website gives information on how to make your plate at mealtime. It also gives recipe ideas that are kid-friendly!


  1. Causes and consequences of childhood obesity. (2020). Retrieved Mar 10, 2021, from
  2. Childhood obesity facts | overweight & obesity | CDC. (2021). Retrieved Mar 10, 2021, from
  3. Children and Physical Activity. Nourishing News (October 2001), Clemson University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and EFNEP.
  4. Duyff, Roberta Larson. American Dietetic Association Complete Food And Nutrition Guide, 2nd Edition. 2002.
  5. Physical activity guidelines for Americans(2018). (2nd ed.) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  6. Results | YRBSS | data | adolescent and school health | CDC. (2020). Retrieved Mar 10, 2021, from
  7. Sports Safety. Nourishing News (April 2005), Clemson University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and EFNEP.
  8. The Tween Scene.
  9. TV Turnoff Network.
  10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. We Can! Families Finding the Balance- A Parent Handbook. NIH Publication No. 05-5273. June 2005.
  11. University of Illinois 4-H Youth Development. Get Up & Move! 2005.
  12. USDA, Food and Nutrition Service. Nibbles for Health, Nutrition Newsletters for Parents of Young Children. Active Living for Families.

Originally published 04/06

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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