How Much is Too Much Exercise for a Child?

Physical activity boasts numerous benefits for children and adolescents. Finding engaging activities that offer variety can often be tricky. While some children require motivation to find forms of physical activity they enjoy, others may require supervision or moderation to minimize their risk for injury. We all want our kids to have fun and play, but it’s crucial that they remain safe while exercising.

Is there such a thing as too much exercise for a child?

As with many things in life, exercise requires moderation. Ask any parent and they’ll say you’d be amazed at how much energy a child possesses. Children can often jump from one activity to the next, needing minimal rest before moving on to the next. While this incredible resiliency is great for children who may not be getting sufficient daily exercise, for some children, it may spell trouble.

There is such a thing as “too much exercise,” or compulsive exercise. Often seen in teenagers or children who play competitive, organized sports, excessive exercise can result in overuse injuries, stress fractures, unhealthy weight-related behaviors (such as eating disorders), and social isolation. While physical activity can enhance mental well-being, prioritizing workouts to the extent that it hinders social interaction can contribute to anxiety and depression as well. In girls, overexercise can lead to something called the female triad, characterized by weight loss, skipped or stopped periods, and weak bones (osteoporosis).

As parents and healthcare providers, we surely want to encourage exercise and movement for a healthier lifestyle

How much is too much exercise?

Unsurprisingly, children require different exercise requirements than adults. For instance, although a child is never too young to run, it is not advisable for four-year-olds to participate in any 5Ks at their age. Instead, children between the ages of 1 and 4 should mainly focus on fun rather than distance when it comes to running. Children ages 5 and 6 can walk or run a little bit, covering a distance of half a mile or so. As for children between ages 7 to 10, they can begin experimenting with mile runs. Tweens and teenagers can go for something more challenging like a 5K, but they’ll need proper training to avoid injury. Half marathons and marathons can be saved for the adults who are able to undergo intense and focused training.

The Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that for children ages 3-5, physical activity should happen throughout the day and mainly consist of active play activities like tag or other games. Those ages 6-17 should aim for 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity daily (if not daily, then at least three times a week). They also recommend that those in this age group should vary the type of activity. Parents should encourage their children to try all three types of activities:

  • Aerobic Activity

Anything that can get their heart and legs pumps is a great form of aerobic activity. Examples include running, swimming, dancing, and more.

  • Muscle Strengthening

Muscle strengthening activities include gymnastics, pushups, climbing, tug-of-war, and more. Older children can also try weight bands or weights with adult supervision.

  • Weight Bearing

Activities like jump rope, skipping, gymnastics, and running help build strong bones.

How can my child injure themselves by exercising?

Sprains and strains are common injuries that can often be prevented by incorporating proper stretching and strengthening exercises. We see these types of injuries often for children who play high-impact sports like soccer and football, but also in low-intensity activities like dancing or swimming. Heat-related injuries are also common, especially during the spring and summer months with spring training, summer sports, and camp activities. Children handle heat much differently than adults because their bodies have a smaller surface area. That means they’ll retain more heat on a hot day and lose more heat on a cold day. To ensure the safety of your child, it is crucial to ensure they are wearing appropriate clothing, stay well hydrated (even before engaging in exercise), and take frequent breaks.

What are some signs my child has an exercise injury?

The physical signs of too much exercise are often easy to spot. You may see signs of pain from your child, often pain in a specific joint or area. Look out for children who are guarding their injury because they’d like to keep playing. Look for limping or favoring one limb over the other as well. Heat-related injuries are a little harder to spot. Look for signs of increased lethargy, slow responses to questions, etc.

For most physical injuries, the first step is to prevent your child from engaging in further exercising, which could lead to further damage or exacerbate the injury. Applying ice and elevating the affected area are recommended steps. For heat-related injuries, you’ll want to take the child into the shade or inside with air conditioning and ensure they stay well hydrated. While we typically associate water with hydration, something like Gatorade or Pedialyte will not only hydrate, but also replenish electrolytes and other nutrients that children tend to lose when they exercise and sweat.

How can exercise help children and their development?

Regular physical activity increases lean body mass, improves muscle and bone strength, and is essential for good mental health. Engaging in exercise helps children boost their self-esteem, develop their capacity for learning, and discover healthy ways to manage stress and challenges.

“Physical activity is an essential component for a healthy lifestyle,” said Paula Pittinger, FNP-C of TPMG James River Pediatrics in Newport News. It’s important to encourage children to engage in physical activity early because it will build habits that they can carry into adulthood. Parents often serve as the best role model for their children, so lead by example. Find ways to get active and encourage participation from your children.

How can we get started?

Start with small goals that engage your entire family. Exercise is often easier and more enjoyable when done as a group. Make it fun, remember to take rest days, and try new foods to keep your diets healthy. Unfortunately, we live in a technology-filled environment, which can often keep us sedentary. Take time as a family to set aside screens and learn a new dance on YouTube, throw a football around the yard, or take a trip to your local pool!

Paula Pittinger

About Paula Pittinger, FNP-C

 
 

Paula Pittinger, FNP-C is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with TPMG James River Pediatrics in Newport News. As a provider, Paula strives to include patients and their families in their care and firmly believes that education plays a crucial role in developing the best, individualized care plan for patients. Through her work, Paula consistently promotes preventative care, recognizing that addressing health concerns before they arise is often easier for patients to manage in the long run.

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