How to encourage your kids to be more physically active


4 minutes

20 May 2021

Happy family running together on the beach

Exercise and active play are important for healthy, growing kids – and for helping them create good habits for life.

Running, jumping and playing outdoors are some of the simple pleasures of childhood.

Kids have oodles of energy, and active play is a fun way to let them release it – at the same time as building fitness and strength to nourish their overall health and wellbeing.1

Unfortunately, research shows most Australian children are not completing the recommended amount of physical activity each day.2

Accredited Exercise Physiologist Colleen Mahony says this is completely understandable. “Parents are busier than ever, the cost of living is higher, and screens are everywhere,” she says.

“Despite this, there are some easy – and low cost – ways to get your kids moving more.”

The benefits of exercise for children

At any age, exercise is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. Experts say some of the benefits of regular activity for children include:

  • Supporting healthy bones, muscles and joints
  • Building cardio fitness for a healthy heart and lungs
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Developing coordination, flexibility, balance, posture and muscle control
  • Supporting brain development, leading to improved concentration and thinking skills
  • Lowering anxiety and stress
  • Reducing the risk of some chronic health problems later in life, such as type 2 diabetes
  • Increasing self-esteem and confidence. 1 3

How much exercise do children need?

“Research shows that school sport and activities are not enough – we need to encourage our kids to be active when they get home from school, and especially on the weekends,” Mahony says.

Each day, according to Australia’s Physical Activity Guidelines4, children and young people aged 5-17 years should do at least:

  • One hour of ‘moderate to vigorous activity’. Think anything that gets their heart beating faster – like running, climbing, jumping, skipping, bike riding, playing sports, skateboarding or dancing.
  • Several hours of ‘light activity’. This includes more incidental activity, such as walking, helping out with chores, or playing in some way that involves movement.

At least three times a week, this daily exercise should include some muscle-strengthening activities, such as running, climbing, sit-ups, push-ups or swinging on the monkey bars.

For younger children aged one to five, the guidelines recommend at least two hours of light activity or playing, with at least one hour of energetic play (moderate to vigorous activity) each day.4

If this sounds like a lot, don’t panic – there are some easy ways to start gradually building up the amount of physical activity in your child’s day. 

Easy ideas for children’s exercise

The easiest way to encourage active children is to make it fun and build it into your family’s day. Here, Mahony shares a few ideas.

Plan active family outings

"Outdoor activity, such as family walks, is important for normal childhood development,” Mahony says.

Try to plan an active family activity once a week – whether it’s a bike ride, a nature walk, a trip to the beach, or a visit to an adventure playground – and enjoy time together in the fresh air.

Hit the playground or backyard

You don’t need lots of fancy equipment – head to the backyard or a local park and play chasey, jump rope, or create obstacle courses.

“Think old school games like What’s the Time Mr Wolf or animal races, where you race in the action of different animals,” Mahony suggests. “Backyard-friendly sports such as cricket and soccer are also a winner.”

Make transport active

Walking or riding to school, the shops or other family outings is a fun and easy way to build more physical activity into the day.

Try community sports

“Community-supported sport such as Auskick, Cricket Blast or NetSetGo are great ways to get your child introduced to team sports,” Mahony says. “They are partially funded and in various locations around the country, making them easily accessible for most families.”

Playing sports can also be an excellent way for kids to make friends and socialise, at the same time as learning teamwork and leadership skills.

Have a dance party

Sports aren’t for everyone – but most kids can enjoy dancing. “Have your kids pick their favourite songs to add to the playlist,” Mahony suggests. This is a particularly good idea for wet weather days when you’re stuck at home.

Make it social

Next time you arrange a playdate for your child, suggest a physical activity – like a bike ride or a swim at the local pool. For any age group, making exercise social is a great way to boost the fun and motivation factor.

Lead by example

“We know that kids model the behaviours they see,” Mahony says. “Talk about your own physical activity and how good you feel after exercise or a sporting game. If you are not currently active, it might be time to get moving with your kids and set the example!”

Exercise for children of all abilities

For children with health conditions, disabilities or additional needs, exercise might come with a few more challenges. Mahony offers the following tips:

  • Focus on building gross motor skills. “Developing skills such as walking, jumping, climbing, navigating uneven terrain and obstacles, catching and throwing can help lead to increased participation in physical activity and sport in later years,” she says.
  • Find activities that can be adapted to your child’s individual needs. For example, adapt a standing activity to be seated, or use special equipment such as larger balls. “Start small and build from there,” Mahony advises. “Any movement is beneficial, no matter how minimal it may seem.”
  • See an exercise physiologist, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, or similarly qualified health professional. “The right professional can give you tips, strategies and support based on your child’s individual needs, to help get your child moving and keep them engaged,” Mahony says.

HBF extras cover can pay benefits towards visits with a physiotherapist, exercise physiologist or occupational therapist, helping reduce your costs.     

With a bit of effort, the whole family can enjoy active play together – and enjoy the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

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This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.