Usually 'Active Schools Week' takes place annually in April. This initiative, by the Department of Education and Skills and Healthy Ireland, aims to motivate schoolchildren to keep active by trying out new activities and having fun! This year, because of COVID-19, it was not possible to go ahead with it and instead families were encouraged to participate in physical activity at home between the 27th of April and the 1st of May.
With this newly named 'Active HOME Week' challenge complete, I hope this article will give parents and guardians some additional tips and ideas to continue to keep children active at home during the current pandemic.
The National Guidelines for physical activity for Ireland recommend that children should be active, at a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day. Muscle strengthening, flexibility and bone strengthening exercises should also be included three times per week.
Reports suggest, however, that over half of primary school children fail to achieve these recommended levels of physical activity.
This may be contributed to that fact lifestyles nowadays are becoming more sedentary, especially in today's technology driven world where children are spending more and more time in front of computer and television screens.
With all organised sports now cancelled, and children spending more time at home due to COVID 19, physical activity should be prioritised. It should be remembered that all activity, no matter how short, counts - including active play at home!
But why is physical activity so important for children? Simply, physical activity is crucial for normal growth and development in childhood. It should be engaged in in early life because it is at this stage that children will develop the skills and habits that will permit them to have an active lifestyle as they grow older.
Physical activity can result in improvements in fitness, strength, flexibility and bone health which not only aid children's movement and sport performance but also reduces risk factors associated with the development of chronic diseases.
According to the National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland such diseases include coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and depression, many of which contribute to increased mortality rate later in life.
Furthermore, physical activity can improve psychological health. Exercise can improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety. This ultimately promotes the child's learning and increases their self-esteem.
Crucially, physical activity, along with a balanced diet, helps to control weight. This is extremely important given the fact that one in every four primary school children in Ireland are overweight or obese.
Not only does being overweight in childhood have its own physical and psychological health problems but they are also more likely to become obese adults. This puts them at risk of developing further health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illnesses, cancers and osteoarthritis.
Tips to keep children active:
· Decrease screen time! Consider active games and activities instead of computer games and television.
· Choose activities that match your child's age, ability and maturity. This will prevent your child from becoming bored or frustrated.
· Keep the focus on FUN! Children won't want to do something if they don't enjoy it.
· If you are starting from very little activity, begin slowly with short sessions of 10 to 15 minutes that can be built up throughout the day. This makes it more manageable.
· If home-schooling, make sure your children take regular breaks to keep moving. Encourage active games at lunch time such as catch or football. This should mimic their normal school routines and improve concentration, memory and mood on return to lessons.
· Be a role model! Children learn through example and are five times more likely to be active if their parents are active.
· Encourage family to participate in activities. Try to set out time during your day to play active games with your children such as ball games or skipping.
· Emphasise the short-term benefits of physical activity to children. This will encourage them to continue to keep active.
· Keep track of goals and achievements. This can be done using a weekly. The goal is to achieve 60 minutes of physical activity per day! Using this visual tool will improve participation and ultimately give them ownership over their physical and mental wellbeing. You can also use rewards if goals are reached to further aid engagement in the process.
Below are some ideas of exercises for children. As mentioned above these exercises may need to be adjusted to match your child's age and abilities. As with most exercise programs they should include a combination of the following components:
a) Aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, running, chasing, cycling, football and dancing. These activities will help to improve your child's fitness and cardiovascular health.
b) Flexibility exercises such as stretching and foam rolling. These exercises help to stretch the body's soft tissues such as muscles. This is very important for children as they are constantly growing meaning their muscles can become tight.
c) Strengthening exercises such as tug-of-war, crab walking, push-ups and squats. These activities will help build strong muscles which can improve sports performance and prevent injuries.
d) Proprioception exercises such as musical statues, 'tightrope' walking or 'surfing' on a cushion or pillow. These activities will help to improve your child's balance and reduce risk of falls and injuries.
e) Plyometric exercises such as hopscotch, jumping jacks and skipping. These activities will help increase the strength and density of bones which may prevent osteoporosis later in life.
These exercises do not need to be conducted alone and so can be incorporated into fun games such a crab soccer or obstacle courses! Other active games include 'Duck, Duck, Goose', 'Follow the Leader', 'Simon Says', 'Tag' and 'Rounders'.
I hope these suggestions will encourage your families to become more active, particularly during this lockdown period, but you should always remember to continue to follow the current government guidelines in relation to social distancing when doing so.
Eilish Sweeney is a Chartered Physiotherapist at Sligo Physiotherapy & Sports Medicine Clinic. She works along with her colleagues Therese Devaney & Rachael Dunne www.sligophysiotherapy.ie