It is relatively rare for people over the age of 18 to take up exercise if they have been sedentary in their childhood or teenage years. For this reason it is vital to establish the habit of exercising at a young age. Parents who encourage their children to exercise regularly, safely and in activities matched to their age and ability are making a valuable contribution to their children’s long-term health.
Exercise brings about clear physical and psychological benefits at each developmental stage from infancy through childhood and into adolescence. Children should be encouraged to pursue a wide range of appropriate activities, from informal games at home to more structured group activities at school or in a club. Safety is an important factor and parents should ensure that the risk of injury is minimized by providing their children with appropriate clothing, footwear and protective equipment, and discouraging over-training. Good habits with regard to taking in adequate fluids and observing the principles of hygiene should be fostered from an early age.
THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE
Regular exercise in childhood and adolescence develops motor skills, promotes healthy growth and good posture, prevents obesity, builds self-confidence and body awareness, and generally maximizes all-round health and. Formal sports and games can teach tactical skills, concentration, determination, healthy competition, self-esteem, pride in performance, individuality and teamwork; activities such as ballet and gymnastics help to establish good posture and balance.
EXERCISE IN INFANCY
In infancy, any kind of physical activity counts as exercise as a baby gradually starts to explore the capabilities of her own body. It is easy to think of simple games that encourage babies to repeat and develop newly acquired skills.
Exercise and development
In the first year of life, a baby gradually gains strength and balance, and develops voluntary control over her muscles. This process begins with the acquisition of head control
• a newborn baby cannot hold her head up
• and culminates in the first steps at around one year.
During this period a baby passes a number of significant milestones: rolling over, maintaining a sitting position, lifting her head and chest from the floor while lying on her front, and possibly (although not always) crawling. All of these skills can be reinforced through play.
Even in the first few weeks of a baby’s life, parents can encourage infants to grow out of the foetal position by gently bending and straightening the knees and stroking (with oil-lubricated hands) down the length of the baby’s arms and legs, working away from the heart. This can be included as part of the nappy-changing routine, but allow at least 30 minutes after a feed. When a baby is one month old she can be given a more systematic gentle massage and when she is able to recognize and reach out for objects, parents can hold out toys at arm’s length, to encourage stretching and grasping. As the baby’s head control develops, and later when she starts to roll over, holding a toy for her to look round at or roll towards provides encouragement. Laying the baby beneath a baby gym – a small A-frame with toys attached to the bars – provides visual stimulation in the early weeks, and soon the baby will start to reach out for the toys.
The sooner a baby is introduced to water play, the better – children who learn to swim late in childhood are more prone to be nervous or fearful of water. In the early months, encourage a baby to play and splash in the bath. Once she has been vaccinated against infectious diseases – usually at around four months – she can be taken to apool. Many pools have special sessions for babies where the water temperature is higher than usual, and suitable toys and floats are provided. Babies and children should never be left alone in or near water, however shallow, even if they appear to be confident swimmers.
Parent-and-baby exercise classes provide an opportunity to exercise with others in a social situation, often with safe equipment and more space than is available at home. Such classes may be designed for babies as young as six months, and activities may include rolling and reaching, and, for toddlers, climbing, jumping and simple co-ordinated movements to music.
Once a baby learns to walk, she will be keen to explore a whole new range of movement: running, kicking, hitting and throwing objects. Throwing and catching games help to develop hand-to-eye coordination, though it may be some time before a child can throw and catch accurately. Riding a tricycle is an activity that can start from the age of about 18 months.
Babies are reliant on adults and older children to provide opportunities for them to exercise, so it is important to develop the habit of playing with a baby every day, even for a short time. Activities for toddlers, such as hide-and-seek and chasing games, can encourage coordination when running, as well as improving skill in turning and changing direction. During football or other ball games, toddlers can be encouraged to participate, even if they are simply running and collecting the ball.