New US guidelines recommend preschool kids get three hours of exercise a day

Play and exercise is part of growing up
Play and exercise is part of growing up
Image: Reuters / China Stringer Network
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Even preschoolers don’t get enough exercise in America.

For the first time, the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) has released federal guidelines on physical activity, fitness, and health that include specific recommendations for preschool children between the ages of three and five years old. The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, released this week (Nov. 12), are the result of 21 months of research from an advisory committee made up of 17 non-federal experts in physical activity and health.

The guidelines recommend that preschool kids be physically active for at least three hours a day. But the average US preschooler doesn’t meet that standard, according to available data. For example, a 2015 study published in Pediatrics looked at 98 preschoolers in 10 child-care centers in Seattle and found that they only got an average of about 48 minutes of exercise a day. That’s bad news both for kids and their caregivers.

Encouraging kids to be active

American children, including preschoolers, are increasingly sedentary—which can have with devastating consequences for their physical and mental health. Childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a lack of physical activities in kids and adolescents can increase their risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, low bone density, and breast, colon, endometrial, and lung cancers. There’s also an important link between daily physical activity and better grades, school attendance, and cognitive skills like memory or concentration.

In early childhood, the years before a child turns six, these consequences can be even more severe. Those are the years that lay the foundation for healthy physical and emotional development into adulthood. A growing body of research has identified specific benefits of physical activity in early childhood, including healthier growth, better bone and heart health, and improved social and cognitive skills. That’s why the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that parents and caregivers play an active role in “supporting and encouraging young children to be physically active and in modeling participation in regular physical activity.”

The best way to do this is by encouraging young children to play. Play can help kids develop language, cognitive, and executive functioning skills, as well as teach them to interact in a group. But it is also important because it makes kids more active and helps them develop their creativity and imagination. Play is so crucial, in fact, that in a recent policy report, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that pediatricians actually prescribe it. And if the latest guidelines for Americans are anything to go by, those prescriptions are more urgently needed than ever.

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.