Photography by Westend61 / Getty Images
Photography by Westend61 / Getty Images

Keeping children fit while stuck inside

Plus ideas for making exercise fun for kids—and maybe even yourself

Looking for new ways to educate and entertain your kids? Visit NatGeo@Home for all kinds of resources—including quizzes, science experiments, lesson plans, and fun activities to do as a family.

Anna Dopheide thought she was ready when her five-year-old son’s preschool closed in Studio City, California. She had plenty of activities to keep his brain fit. But his body? That was a different challenge entirely.

“Somehow, everything active we try turns into backbreaking work,” Dopheide says. “Putting the trampoline in the living room means pushing heavy furniture out of the way. A kid yoga video means my husband and I are doing kid yoga too!”

With stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules in place throughout the country, keeping kids active these days might seem impossible. But it’s important. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, exercise can help kids improve recall, concentration, and grades—crucial things as many schools transition to digital classrooms.

In addition to promoting brain health, staying active is important for mental health. “Physical activity is a key component of emotional resilience and well-being,” says Hector de Leon, a Fort Collins, Colorado, pediatrician and assistant regional medical director of pediatrics for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. “That’s why we need to prioritize physical activity as a family during this historic public health crisis.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children get at least an hour of activity a day, incorporating exercise that promotes heart-pumping activity, muscle building, and bone strengthening. But fitting that into a kid’s new bedroom-to-kitchen-table routine can feel daunting. Luckily we’ve got ideas from the experts on how to keep your kids moving, even though recess and after-school sports have been cancelled.

Pump it up
Besides simply keeping children at a healthy weight, the HHS says getting heart rates up can help kids sleep better, ease anxiety, and decrease the risk of chronic illness later. To do that, the it recommends that kids should get “moderate-intensity aerobic activity” daily. Just think: fast fun.

De Leon, who has a 19-month-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old, uses music from his childhood to play quick games of Musical Chairs, Simon Says, Follow the Leader, and Freeze Dance. “I grew up along the border with Mexico, so I’ve been having fun with some ethnic diversity,” he says. To really speed things up, de Leon created a racetrack that his kids use to physically race cars, balls, or each other. Don’t have toy tracks? Try masking tape.

Physical therapist Karen Wartan of Glendale, California, says her 10- and 12-year-old enjoy tossing a balloon and keeping it from touching the ground, getting everyone laughing and moving. “And it’s something they can do while I’m still in bed,” she says.

You can even get creative with scavenger hunts. “On a blank sheet of paper, write the ABC’s,” says Meredith Pharis, a clinical social worker and mom of a two-year-old in Westchester County, New York. “Randomly stick them around the house and have the kids race around to find them,” she says. “For older kids, you can use words.”

And there’s always healthy housework. Picking up laundry, sweeping floors, and unloading the laundry all get your heart rate up,” says Ruth Stefanos, a pediatrician who works with the Johns Hopkins Ruth and Norman Rales Center for the Integration of Health and Education, a school health program in Baltimore. Rather than assigning jobs, Stefanos suggests having the whole family pitch in. “This can become a chance to reengage together,” she says. Plus it takes care of one more to-do.

Build up bones
Building up bone strength is especially important during childhood. Bone tissue protects organs and prevents fractures, but, according to the National Institutes of Health, it pretty much stops collecting in a body by the time a girl is 18 or a boy is 20. Luckily you can turn almost any game into a bone strengthener by adding jumping, skipping, or hopping. For loud fun, think bubble wrap. “Jumping on it is great,” Wartan says.

Another favorite is the Cotton Ball Race. “You hold a spoon with cotton on it and move across the room,” Wartan says. By adding couch cushions and pillows as obstacles to jump or hop over, kids work their whole bodies.

Hopscotch is one more way to jump around. “You can use painter’s tape for the lines,” Pharis says. And how about indoor basketball? “We pass a small ball into a trash can,” Wartan says. “You can make it harder by picking up the ball from the floor each time.” That squat-to-stand motion can build bones.

To make things more fun while kids are building those bones, Lenny Parracino recommends practicing basketball like a pro athlete might: blindfolded. (He should know: He’s a manual / movement therapist for the Los Angeles Clippers.) “Playing blindfolded also works on your depth perception,” says Parracino, who’s also on the faculty at the Gray Institute, which operates the nonprofit Free2Play that helps get kids active. “And it’s so much fun.”

Make those muscles
Building muscle mass helps kids avoid injury, stay strong, and maintain a healthy weight. It’s even been shown to boost self-esteem. But most kids shouldn’t use free weights—their own body weight is enough to build muscle. “Kids need to first learn to control their body weight before adding artificial loads,” Parracino says.

The dad of two teens favors quick, weight-free exercise breaks throughout the day. “We call them ‘movement snacks,’” he says. “It’s getting up after 15 to 20 minutes on the computer and just moving.”

How kids move makes it fun: Each child picks a movement plus a way to make it a little wacky. “So a brother and sister can run while holding hands and facing each other—without pushing or pulling each other over,” Parracino says. Resistance builds muscles, so that natural push-and-pull helps do the job.

Parracino remembers one boy at Free2Play picking muscle-building push-ups for his movement, then adding a caterpillar-like worm move. (Think back to your break-dancing days.) “Soon all the kids were doing The Worm,” he says.

Making things more challenging—but in a fun way—can help inspire kids to keep exercising and building muscle, especially if family members choose challenges for each other. Try balancing on one foot while turning in place, doing jumping jacks with your arms crossed over your chest (which builds bones and muscles!), or crab walking while blindfolded. Doing familiar resistance exercises—like squats, lunges, or leg raises—backward, upside-down, in different directions, or with a twist can keep the fun going.

“The key is to be fun, creative, and variable,” Parracino says.

And though keeping kids fit helps maintain good health during a time when good health is crazy-important, exercising together can do so much more. “These kinds of activities also help bring families together,” de Leon says. “You might realize that gosh, you don’t need a whole lot more than this, and that we’re going to be OK.”