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Updated February 26, 2021
One in six American kids is obese. Whether you’re a parent, have friends who have kids or simply care about the future of our country, that number should concern you. Luckily, there’s an easy way to motivate the kids in your life to avoid falling into the fat trap: get them moving.
An active lifestyle is vital to good health at any age. But the workout that has you pushing your limits in the gym or stepping it up in fitness class might not be the best choice for children. If you’re looking for safe, engaging workouts for your kids, read on.
Doing works. Telling doesn’t.
Kids need to get more exercise; that’s a given. But simply telling them to put away their screens and go run around can fall on deaf ears—especially if you’re not doing it yourself. Research shows that kids really do learn by example, and look to the adults in their life to show them good habits.
In a recent Men’s Health article on kid-friendly fitness, the writer puts it this way: “Kill two birds with one stone: Work out with your kid. You’ll both log a great workout while building habits that last a lifetime. The key is to turn work into play.”
Just like adults, kids need to warm up before exercising. Give them about 5 to 10 minutes of light activity—walking, stretching, jumping jacks, bending or knee lifts all work. As long as they’re gradually increasing their heart rate and getting their muscles moving, a wide variety of movements could make a good warmup, including a slower version of the exercising you’ll be doing next. Change up the number of reps and activities based on the child’s physical ability and age.
Warming up is also important for a host of other reasons. It can help kids develop balance, coordination and agility. And as an added bonus, most warmups don’t require special equipment, so they can be done virtually anywhere. But whether your kid is warming up or at the workout’s peak intensity, it’s always importance to supervise them carefully to ensure their safety.
Can kids do resistance training?
Resistance training can help kids improve their balance and body awareness. But how young is too young to have them start resistance training? According to the Mayo Clinic, resistance training can be valuable, and safe, for kids as young as 7 or 8 years old. Bulking up, though, is a different story, and shouldn’t begin until after adolescence.
In the meantime, if your child is ready to explore resistance training, keep it light. Experts say light weights and one or two sets of 10-12 reps should be more than enough for a child. In many cases, body-weight exercises like the ones we describe later in this article are a more appropriate starting point for helping your child dive into the world of fitness.
Safe exercise ideas for kids
In your workout, intensity can produce results. But for kids, it’s important to balance that intensity with simplicity and the “fun” factor that will make exercise fun—not another chore the adults told them to do.
Group sports have long been shown to help kids develop their agility, teamwork, sportsmanship and lifelong exercise habits. Kids that participate in sports are 8 times as likely to be active later in life. Put another way, only 3% of us who play sports as adults didn’t play sports as kids.
But kids don’t have to be on the field to have a fun, healthy workout. Many of the moves you do as part of your HIIT are ideal for exercisers of any age—as long as they’re shown proper technique and form. These exercises are hard enough to provide a solid workout, but simple enough that the kids can probably keep up. (We’ve included descriptions here, too, in case they help you explain or demo these moves for your kids.)
- Planks: Put your elbows on the floor, raise up on the tips of your toes, keeping your back straight and your abs tight in a line. Hold that position as long as you can. For kids, 30 seconds is a great starting goal.
- Squats: Put your feet shoulders’ width apart and do deep knee bends like you’re sitting down on an invisible box. Put your arms out. Your knees shouldn’t extend beyond your toes.
- Push-ups: Keep your abs tight and your back straight. Full push-ups might be difficult for kids at first, so you can always start them with a modified version.
- Lunges: Take a step. Touch your back knee to the floor. Your front knee shouldn’t extend past the toes.
- Mountain Climbers: Start in a push-up position, and alternately bring one foot and then the other forward toward your armpit. Extend each foot fully back out. It almost looks like a stationary bear crawl.
- Butterfly Kicks: Lie on your back. Keeping your abs tight, raise your feet just barely off the floor and flutter-kick them.
- V-ups: This one’s like a sit-up, but in the shape of a V. Lie back, extend your arms out above your head on the floor, then lift your legs and raise your torso and hands until you make a “V” shape. Reach toward your feet and back down again.
Once your kid has mastered the moves above, you can consider moving them on to the Holy Grail of kid and adult fitness alike: the burpee. Monitor your kids closely to ensure they are using proper form, and keep them hydrated between burpees.
Beyond safety, what’s most important is that your kids have fun so they’ll want to keep moving—even when you don’t ask them to. Try a circuit-style workout so that they can look forward to each exercise change. Add their favorite music to the mix so that they won’t want to stop. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the opportunity to make working out a friendly competition. There’s nothing like winning to keep you, and your kid, motivated to hit that next exercise milestone.