Can Kids Exercise Too Much?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 12, 2016
4 min read

Sometimes it seems like kids have endless energy. They can bounce from school to practice and still want to play outside when they get home. But between organized sports and time to just play, how do you know if they’re getting too much exercise?

Most parents don’t need to worry about that, says Cris Dobrosielski, a personal trainer and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.

“In general, many kids in the United States aren’t getting enough,” he says. “There is very little physical education in schools, recess is often short, and kids are coming home and not having opportunities to be active.”

But for children who play a few different sports, it’s important for parents to watch for signs that they’re exhausted or injured while they’re exercising.

The amount and type of physical activity that’s right for your child depends on her age, interests, and how fit she is already. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

Children ages 6 and up should get at least an hour of physical activity every day, according to CDC guidelines. If this sounds like a lot, keep in mind that they don’t have to do it all at once.

“A lot of countries have recommendations that children get about 3 hours of activity a day, or about 15 minutes every hour or so that they’re awake,” says Blaise Nemeth, MD, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. “That’s a pretty reasonable guideline for most kids.”

It’s a good idea to encourage children to move around for a few minutes every hour. They have shorter attention spans and tend to be active in shorter bursts than adults, Nemeth says.

Just like adults, children need different types of exercise to stay healthy and avoid getting hurt.

Aerobic activity, or the kind that gets the heart and lungs pumping. Most of kids’ 60 minutes a day should be this type. Good ways to get it include walking to school, hiking, or skateboarding. At least 3 days a week, children should do vigorous aerobic activity, meaning it makes them breathe more heavily than normal. They can run, swim, or do fast-paced dancing.

Muscle strengthening. Three days a week, kids should work their muscles. At any age, they can do activities that use their body weight as resistance -- like gymnastics, push-ups, playing tug-of-war, or climbing rocks and trees. With the right coaching, older children and teens can work their muscles with resistance bands or weights, Dobrosielski says.

Weight-bearing exercise, like jumping, skipping, and running, at least 3 days a week will help them build strong bones.

Does all of this sound like a lot? Don’t worry -- many types of exercises fall into more than one of the categories, so it shouldn’t be hard to fit them all into your child’s week.

For the most part, Nemeth says, children are very good at knowing their own energy levels. “If kids are just allowed to move as their bodies are telling them, I think it’s pretty hard for them to be moving too much,” he says.

Problems get more common when older children start to follow training schedules for organized sports. “Kids develop at different rates, and some will be able to tolerate more activity than others,” Nemeth says. “When an outside force like a coach or a trainer gets involved, it’s important for parents to make sure their children are still enjoying themselves and feeling good.”

If your child seems exhausted, injured, or unable to recover fully from workouts, he may be training too hard. Another burnout signal: Kids may also lose interest in activities they used to enjoy.

Keep your child physically and mentally healthy by encouraging him to try different sports throughout the year, and to mix in other activities on days he doesn’t have practice or games.

Nemeth also says kids should practice organized sports no more than 1 hour per year of age every week. For example, a 12-year-old should have no more than 12 hours a week of baseball practice and games.

Those who go over this limit are more likely to get injured. Young athletes who spend twice as many hours playing organized sports than they do in free play each week are also more likely to get hurt -- especially if they focus on just one activity.

For kids who are serious about sports, it’s also important to have at least one rest day per week, Dobrosielski says.

“They should still get some exercise on these days, but it can be much more relaxed and low-pressure,” he says. “Taking a break from their routine, along with proper sleep and nutrition, will help these overachievers recover between practices and games.”