How much should children exercise per week?

Jan 1, 2014 at 1:00 a.m. ET

Everyone knows exercise is good for children, especially when obesity levels are on the rise in youth. But exactly how much exercise should your child get each week?

Kids playing outdoors

On average, children in the U.S. spend 3 to 4 hours a day watching television, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. This can have several negative effects on children, even if some of the programming may be educationally beneficial.

Certified Nutrition Consultant Alejandro Chabán says this is because while watching TV, kids are inactive — and most likely eating, too.

Why exercise?

Why do we need exercise? We know it prolongs life, decreases a number of infections, makes one feel happier and, probably most importantly, builds bones so that older people do not have as many fractures.

For kids, however, exercising is a child's first chance at developing a healthy lifestyle, Chabán says.

"This is the first way to manage how much time they are involved in outdoor activities and physical exercise," he says.

How much?

Chabán says that on average, children should be active for at least 2 hours every day, for 14 hours a week, even if that activity can't be outdoors.

"There are a lot of activities they can do indoors that are still going to help them improve their physical condition and burn off calories," he says.

For children, "exercising" and "being active" can be thought of as interchangeable. At times, just being a typical kid is great exercise in itself.

"Don't underestimate the power of playing and horsing around," Chabán says. "In an hour of active play, your child can burn up to 100 calories. This will total up to around 1,400 calories a week, which is a great expenditure for a child."

Adapt that number

Though Chabán recommends an average of 2 hours of active playing or exercising for children a day, he notes that younger children don't have the same amount of energy.

"Two hours a day is a general goal that parents should aim for, but keep in mind that toddlers have a much lower resistance and can't be expected to carry out 2 straight hours of physical activity," he says.

Instead, when their kids are ages 1 through 4, parents should break up the suggested 2 hours into smaller blocks of 10 to 15 minutes to keep their kids' attention and help their children get the most out of the activity.

Children who are overweight should adapt the target number as well, Chabán says, going for an extra hour of exercise at a time or increasing the intensity of exercise they're already doing. Try more demanding activities like soccer, tennis, basketball, jogging, football or swimming, for example.

Set goals

So now that you know 2 hours of physical activity is prime for kids, how do you encourage your children to meet this goal?

Chabán suggests offering them something they enjoy in exchange for exercising, such as TV or video game time.

"This is a great incentive for them, and it forces them to try new activities, which they might enjoy and decide to practice on a more permanent basis," he says.

More about kids and healthy living

How to introduce kids to exercise
Children and good nutrition: Start early
Teaching kids to love healthy food and exercise