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Even Babies Need Exercise

To maintain their lifelong health and your sanity, make sure your infant or toddler is getting enough physical activity.
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WebMD Feature

Parents are starting to catch on to the idea that everyone needs exercise, even infants and toddlers. Energetic and rambunctious, 18-month-old Aiden pushes his toy stroller around a playground in New York City.

"I really try to encourage him to move around as much as possible," says Aiden's mother, Nancy Chin, 32. "Before we started coming to the playground every day, he would be whiney and clinging after breakfast. But now, even just 10 or 15 minutes of him walking around makes him calmer and more likely to take a nap. We try to get that much twice a day, at least."

That's exactly what the authors of Active Start, the first set of exercise guidelines for babies, which were put out by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), want to hear more parents saying.

According to these pediatric experts, parents who use strollers, playpens, car and infant seats for hours at a time, may be delaying their child's physical and mental development.

"The need for even the very young to be physically active is something parents often don't understand," says Jane Clark, PhD, professor and chair of the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland. Clark chaired the NASPE committee that wrote the guidelines.

"The earlier infants, toddlers, and preschool children get exposure to daily movement and exercise, the better the likelihood of healthy development in later life," Clark says.

Regular exercise causes the kind of development that may be critical for health in later life. Infancy and the toddler years are the time that the brain is developing pathways and connections to the muscles.

Children who do not get enough exercise may miss out on the chance to make the strong kinds of brain-muscle connections that make physical activity easier and more enjoyable. As the child grows and matures, it is that physical competence that makes exercise more likely to become a life-long habit.

And that's important for all kids, not just those who will become gifted athletes.

"For babies, exercise is protection against obesity not just now, but as they grow up," says Lori Rosello, MD, a pediatrician in private practice in New York. "If kids enjoy exercise as babies, they will be more active as adults. That's not just because it is a learned behavior, though it can be, but also because their brains have incorporated the physical skills that make exercise more enjoyable."

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