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April 10, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Your average toddler doesn't need much encouragement to exercise. Squirmy-wormy preschoolers are almost always raring to go. In fact, experts say that parents may be the biggest barrier to small children getting physical. In many ways -- by pushing them in strollers, buckling them into car seats, plunking them in shopping carts -- caregivers put obstacles in front of young ones who'd much rather be moving about.

The best way to make sure that tiny tots get all the exercise they need, says Jim Sallis, PhD, a physical educator at San Diego State University, is to get them outside. Kids tend to walk, run, hop, skip, and jump much more in the great outdoors than they do when stuck inside. So, find a safe place for them to move and supervise their activities. Or better yet, play ball or race around with them yourself.

Once kids enter school, parents are left with a narrow window of time, between about 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when they can encourage their kids to work out. "Very few kids get up at 5 a.m. to go bike-riding," Sallis says. "It just doesn't happen."

Researchers like Sallis have found that young children whose parents actively support their physical pursuits -- by driving them to their activities and watching them do them -- are much more likely to stick with their pastimes than kids whose parents show little enthusiasm for them. There's not much evidence to support the idea that just because Mom plays tennis, her kids will naturally follow suit, say researchers. But doing something active as a family after school or on the weekend -- whether it's shooting baskets, donning in-line skates, or riding waves -- certainly can't hurt.

Sarah Henry, a freelance writer in San Francisco, has written extensively on health and medical issues.

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