With obesity rising and physical activity declining, any excuse to get the kids into exercise is a good thing.

It is an absolute must for growth and development, and as researchers at the University of Illinois confirmed, it is also crucial for good mental functioning.

“The goal of the study was to see if a single acute bout of moderate exercise – walking – was beneficial for cognitive function in a period of time afterward, ” research leader Charles Hillman said. “This question has been asked before by our lab and others, in young adults and older adults, but it’s never been asked in children.”

The nine-year-old study participants were able to pay better attention and performed better in reading, spelling and maths — particularly in reading comprehension — after 20 minutes of treadmill walking and a 20-minute rest period, it was discovered. It also appears that the fitter children are, the better.

In a 2009 study in the Journal of School Health, researchers measured performance in five athletic areas: an endurance cardiovascular test, an abdominal strength test, a flexibility test, an upper body strength test and an agility test. They reported that the more fitness tests that were passed, the greater the odds were for the children to also pass the standardised maths and English tests.

There could be several reasons for this relationship. It was suggested that children who performed well in both academia and physical activity might be more motivated individuals. Secondly, good fitness might reflect overall health and therefore, their good health contributes to academic success. Additionally, exercise may improve concentration in class.

When it comes to a longer stint of exercise, such as the Run for a Reason, Rob Newton, head of the School of Exercise, Biomedical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University, is enthusiastic about children and teens taking part. Over-12s should be fine to attempt either circuit length, he said.

“If the child wants to do the run and prepare for it, then that’s great. It’s good for them — they should be doing it more. Parents shouldn’t focus on potential risks.”

Walking — or even running — the 4km course is suitable for those aged five to 12, according to Prof Newton.

“Kids will easily cover 4km just running around the playground and the recommendations are for kids to get 60 minutes of exercise a day anyway.

“As long as they can go at their own pace and their coach or parents do not push them.”

Children under five are unlikely to want to walk 4km, so be prepared to carry them or bring a pram.

And be aware that young children are at risk of overheating because they cannot regulate their body temperature as well as adults, he said.

Dietitian and exercise physiologist Joanne Turner said children should never be discouraged from exercising — unless instructed to by a health professional — but pointed out there were special considerations for growing bodies with high activity levels.

“They need to make sure they are eating an adequate balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats in their diet to compensate for the large amount of kilojoules burnt and muscle repair, along with normal growth and development.”

“Children are at high risk of malnutrition and development of an eating disorder if their body fat levels drop too low. Working muscles use mostly carbohydrates, as well as their brain with learning at school, making their needs extra high, ” Mrs Turner said.

100 ways to unplug and play

The Heart Foundation’s initiative 100 Ways to Unplug + Play has 109 suggestions to get kids away from screens and into fitness. There are ideas for the backyard, for before and after school time, inside activities, weekends, holidays and special events — including registering for a family-friendly fun run to get the whole family involved and training. Need fun, but practical, ideas? Visit heartfoundation.org.au.


© The West Australian

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