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Fitness Begins in Early Childhood
By Gary E. Sanders

North American children today are taller and heavier than their counterparts of a hundred years ago (Gallahue & Ozman, 1998). Over a third of the children today are overweight and obese (Kirchner & Fishburne, 1998). Why is this? Simply put: Today’s children are less active than the children of the past. As a result, many children suffer from obesity which in turn leads to coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and high levels of cholesterol (Graham et al, 1998; Kirchner & Fishburne, 1998; Pangrazi, 1998). How can teachers and parents concerned with their children’s health help?


Activity is one of the eleven components which contributes to a high-quality, healthy lifestyle. Some of the other components are muscle strength and endurance, flexibility, cardiovascular, and nutrition to mention a few (Corbin & Lindsey, 1997). The Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health Benefits recommends, “All people over the age of two years should accumulate at least 30 minutes of endurance-type physical activity, of at least moderate intensity, on most preferably all days of the week” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996).


By incorporating daily movement activities into the early childhood curriculum, you help lay the foundation for children to experience an active childhood which will help them create an active adulthood. In fact, research has shown just how important the early years are to promoting physical fitness and wellness. According to Gabbard (1998), the “window of opportunity” for acquiring basic motor movements is from prenatal to five years of age; for fine motor skills the window is from after birth to around nine years of age. During this period, the brain gathers and stores information and a solid foundation for movement activities is built. At age ten the behavioral development window closes.


However, children are children. Do not use adult activities with them. Children’s fitness and movement activities should be fun and appropriate for the age of the children. Remember, play is children’s work, and is their way of learning as well as exercising. The following suggestions will help you incorporate movement activities into your classroom.


  • Start early (before two years of age) with gross motor movements (the use of the large muscles in the body). Examples of gross motor activities include climbing, walking, running, kicking, throwing, catching, and jumping.

  • Combine movements involving eye-foot and eye-hand coordination such as striking large colorful beach balls and balloons. Include manipulative items where reaching-to-grasp, puzzles, building blocks, and stringing beads provide experiences with fine motor movements (Gabbard, 1998).

Dr. Gary Sanders is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Physical Education at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Dr. Sanders teaches motor development, motor learning, physical education pedagogy, dance, and a variety of activity courses. He was Dance Educator of the Year in 1992 for the state of Minnesota. He also contributes professional presentations at national, district, state, and local levels.



Corbin, C.B., & Lindsey, R., (1997). Concepts of physical fitness, 9th ed. Brown & Benchmark: Dubuque, IA.


Gabbard, C. (1998). Windows of opportunity for early brain and motor development. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, Volume 69, pp. 54-55.


Gallahue, D.L. & Ozmum, J.C. (1998). Understanding motor development, 4th ed. Mayfield: Mountain View, CA.


Kirchner, G. & Fishburne, G.J. (1998). Physical education for elementary school children, 10th edition, WCB/McGraw-Hill: Dubuque, IA.


Mendon, J. & Van Blom, J. (1999). Using technology to enhance fitness. Teaching Elementary Physical Education, Volume 10, p. 20.



Pangrazi, R.P. (1998). Dynamic physical education for elementary school children, 12th edition. Allyn and Bacon: Boston.


U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (1996). Physical activity and health: A report of the surgeon general. Atlanta, GA: USDHHS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,