Children and exercise: can they have too much of a good thing?

Children and exercise: can they have too much of a good thing?

Conventional wisdom says that exercise is good for children.  Period.  With rising obesity rates, and leisure time increasingly being filled with screen-based activities, it is understandable and right that children are encouraged to exercise.  Having a range of different physical activities is a crucial prerequisite for healthy growth and development.  But how much and what type of exercise is right for children?  And is there a point at which exercise may become a cause of problems rather than something that prevents them? 

The Jin dynasty scholar wrote:

 ‘The body should always be exercised…yet even in exercise do not go to extremes.’  

From an immunological perspective too, there is a dose response to exercise.  The right amount helps to reduce inflammation.  Too much or too little may encourage inflammation. 

A generation or two ago, physical activity was woven into the fabric of life in a way that it is not in the modern, developed world.  It was often the norm for children to walk or cycle to school.  A large proportion of spare time was spent playing outside.  Children were expected to help with the physical work involved in running a household.  

Nowadays, parents find themselves having to consciously create opportunities for their children to exercise.  It may become something that the child should do, or needs to do and therefore potentially something they rebel against.  Exercise often becomes about seeking an adrenaline rush or, in older kids, a way of trying to attain the ‘perfect’ body.  In schools, sport is often about competition and winning which, for some kids, can take the fun out of it.  One outcome of this is that many children lose the ability to sense what level and type of exercise their body needs.  

From the Chinese medicine perspective, children have an abundance of yang energy, which means that they express themselves through movement and need to move frequently.  They also have immature yin which means that they need to rest often and take regular breaks.  In Chinese texts, the flesh and ligaments of children are described as being not yet fully formed or ‘firm’.  So much of a child’s qi fuels their rapid growth and development.  If they are exercising excessively too, this can lead to depletion or injury. 

So, how do we decide what is the appropriate level of exercise for our children?  In general,

  • Young children thrive off short bursts of activity, interspersed with periods of rest
  • For the first six or seven years of life, frequent walking, running around, climbing and generally larking about is probably enough exercise for most children
  • Most children are not constitutionally suited to intensive training in their chosen sport until their growth has slowed down, after the intense growth of puberty
  • If a child is training in their chosen sport, making sure they train a maximum of every other day can help to prevent injury or depletion
  • If a young child’s mood changes after intensive exercise (e.g. they become tearful or aggressive) it is a sign that the exercise is excessive for them
  • If a young child is tired and less able to function for more than an hour or so after exercise, it is a sign they have probably done too much

Every child has a different sweet spot when it comes to exercise.  Depending on their constitution, some will thrive on more exercise than others.  The best thing we can do for our children is guide them in finding their sweet spot.  We can help them to listen to their bodies.  We can support them to stop when they need to rest, or encourage them to do more when they are suffering from the effects of inactivity.  We can help them understand that what is right for another child may not be right for them, and that it’s ok that we all have different limits.

Once again, the simple yet profound principle of yin-yang is applicable.  A child should have a balance of rest (yin) and activity (yang) and this balance will be slightly different for every child.