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.
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."
As children grow, she says, those who exercise and continue to do so into adulthood are much less likely to become obese.
"Of course, you can't ignore the genetics and environmental influences that every kid has, but early exercise offers a sort of protection against obesity in later life, and that's important to your child's health," says Rosello.
In a two-year study of obese 8- to 12-year-olds from 90 families, increased activity and reduced television viewing resulted in significant weight loss. The study, published in the August 1999 issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, showed that children who are more physically active are less likely to become obese.
The NASPE's Active Start guidelines are divided into two groups of activity levels -- one for infants and one for toddlers.
Here are some of the suggestions for infants:
- Infants should be placed in settings that encourage physical activity and do not restrict movement for prolonged periods of time.
- Parents and caretakers should be aware of the importance of physical activity and encourage the child's movement skills.
For toddlers, the NASPE says, basic movement skills such as running, jumping, throwing, and kicking are clearly influenced by the environment they grow up in. For instance, they say, a child who does not have access to stairs may be delayed in stair climbing and a child who is discouraged from bouncing and chasing balls may lag in hand-eye coordination.
Here are some of the suggestions for toddlers:
- Toddlers should get at least 30 minutes daily of structured physical activity. Preschoolers need at least 60 minutes.
- Both toddlers and preschoolers should not be restrained for more than 60 minutes at a time in car seats or strollers, except when sleeping.
"It's important for parents to get involved and stay involved with the child," says Judy Young, PhD, NASPE executive director. "That child-parent interaction is what reinforces the exercise. In a sense, it becomes more than exercise and is more a physical-psychological learning experience for the child."