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The importance of exercise for children

After a long day at school, many children may not want to participate in after-school activities because they feel tired. But in the "couch-potato" era, where both children and adults spend hours and hours each day in front of the television or computers, exercise is a must. An inactive lifestyle is leading to an ever-increasing number of overweight and out-of-shape adults. Unfortunately, more and more children are also facing the same challenges.

Exercise for developing bodies and minds
Getting plenty of exercise is important for children, especially when they are still developing their bodies and minds. East Tennessee Children's Hospital Pediatric Emergency Medicine's Lise Christensen, MD, emphasizes that children need to be exposed to a broad range of activities to stay healthy and fit. However, Dr Christensen stresses that what may be good exercise activities for adults may not be the same as what are considered good exercise options for children.

Children can receive all the exercise they need simply by having time each day for "free play" -- time to run outside with friends or play an unorganized sport -- which can help to develop coordination and creativity while also helping to develop the muscle groups. Running and tumbling on a soft surface such as grass or a mat are great activities for young children. Climbing trees or monkey bars is also good exercise. As with all activities, children should be well supervised, especially when climbing.

"When children are young, it is an excellent time for them to become active and exposed to as many different activities as possible," Dr Christensen says. "The more fun exercise is for the child, the better the activity. It is especially wise to expose children to activities where they will have fun playing with other children."

However, Dr Christensen cautions parents when encouraging young children to participate in organized sports because young children do not need competition. "Activities that involve few rules offer children more room for creativity and fun," she relates. "Rules and regulations only take away the fun for children, who may not be interested in participating in organized sports. Free play encourages them to stretch their minds as it provides health benefits to their bodies."

However, if a child expresses interest in an organized activity, such as gymnastics, tee-ball or dance, it is fine to allow participation at a reduced level. The most important thing to watch for in organized activity is the student-to-teacher ratio (a good ratio is no more than 10 students for every one coach). It is also important for parents to not push their children too hard in such activities. They should be allowed to participate at their own level of ability and interest without feeling pressured by their parents to succeed and be overly competitive. Parents should also use caution in allowing their children to focus only on one favorite activity, says Dr Christensen. "When young children concentrate on an activity that uses one muscle group but does not give action to other muscles throughout the body, that one area can become overdeveloped," she says. "For instance, if a child wants to play tee-ball, he or she should not concentrate all their energies on throwing the ball, but instead should throw, run, bat and catch."

Exposing children to many different activities during school can help them grow into healthy, active adults. As long as children are having fun and parents remember not to push them too hard, children can easily become more physically fit.

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