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Physical Fitness in Early Childhood: What's Developmentally Appropriate
By Rae Pica

No pain, no gain. Target heart rate. Pumping up. These are all expressions we relate to fitness for adults. But do the same terms apply to young children? Why should physical fitness be a concern during the early childhood years? Don't young children get all the activity they need naturally by being children? Certainly, they are active enough to be physically fit!

Unfortunately, the statistics suggest otherwise. On average, children ages two to five spend about 25 ½ hours a week watching television (during a year, this is as much time as children spend is school), and this number doesn't include time spent playing video games or working with computers. Some studies show up to 50 percent of American children are not getting enough exercise (Taras, 1992). Research also indicates that:

  • 40 percent of five- to eight-year-olds show at least one heart disease risk factor, including elevated cholesterol, hypertension, and obesity;

  • the first signs of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) are appearing at about age five; and

  • the number of overweight children has doubled in the last decade.

In the past, heart disease risk factors were rarely seen in anyone under the age of 30. Of equal significance are the facts that obese children tend to become obese adults, and that children with high blood pressure are likely to become adults with high blood pressure. All of this indicates that "just being a kid" is not what is used to be and is no longer enough to keep individuals healthy.

The Good News
Since scare tactics are not always the best means of motivation, here's the good news regarding physical fitness:

  • Children who are physically active and experience success in movement activities show higher levels of self-esteem and a greater sense of accomplishment.

  • Physical activity helps children get through the day without fatigue and makes them more alert.

  • Fit children are more likely to participate in sports, dance, games, and other physical activities that improve muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, cardio-respiratory endurance, and body composition.

Many health problems are preventable. With an estimated 250,000 deaths a year in the United States caused by low levels of activity and fitness, the solution appears to be as simple as getting up and moving! Although there is currently little research suggesting that childhood physical activity affects childhood health, it is believed that individuals who are physically active as children are likely to remain physically active as adults. Therefore, physical activity in childhood may indeed have an effect on adult health.

The key to physical activity in early childhood is enjoyment. For adults, success might be defined in terms of an extra lap run around the track, an extra ten pounds lifted, or getting through an extra 15 minutes of aerobics. For a preschooler, success in any activity is simply a matter of how much fun it is!

What Early Childhood Professionals Can Do
Pangrazi and Corbin (1993) report that most children are involved in low-intensity, high-volume (long duration) activity each day and "this naturally occurring activity is consistent with the developmental levels of children" (p. 17). Therefore, teachers and caregivers need not be concerned with the type or intensity of the activity, as long as regular activity remains a part of the child's life.

The Physical Best program (1989), developed by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, defines physical fitness as "a physical state of well-being that allows people to 1) perform daily activities with vigor, 2) reduce their risk of health problems relative to lack of exercise, and 3) establish a fitness base for participation in a variety of physical activities."

If this definition of physical fitness is to become a reality for the children of today, they must be taught that physical activity is just as important in life as good hygiene and a proper diet. Teachers and caregivers must encourage, praise, and validate physical activity at every opportunity and serve as role models to the children in their care. Because Americans now burn fewer calories in the course of their daily lives, physical activity must be planned into each day.

Yes, the competition with television, video games, and computers is steep, but children will never be as motivated to be physically active as they are during the early years. The fact is, children love to move! So parents and early childhood professionals are not without weapons in their war against sedentary lifestyles.

Rae Pica is a movement education consultant and the author of Experiences in Movement, and the seven-book Moving & Learning Series. An adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she conducts movement workshops nationwide and has served as a consultant for Children's Television Workshop, the Head Start Bureau, and Children's World Learning Centers.

References
AAHPERD, (1989).Physical Best Program. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.

Pangrazi, R.P., & Corbin, C.B. (1993).Physical fitness: Questions teachers ask. Journal of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 64(7), 14-19.

Taras, H.L. (1992).Physical activity of young children in relation to physical and mental health. In C.M. Hendricks (Ed.) Young children on the grow: Health, activity, and education in the preschool setting (pp.33-42). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse.

Developmentally Appropriate Aerobic Activities
Physical activity, like everything else in children's lives, should be appropriate for their level of development. Calisthenics and structured exercise regimens are not developmentally appropriate for young children and are not likely to contribute to a lifelong desire to keep moving. The following are examples of activities promoting both fitness and fun for young children.

Maroning- An energetic march around the room is a great fitness activity. You can provide an accompanying drumbeat or play a recording of a march. Challenge the children to swing their arms and raise their knees while keeping the rest of their bodies straight and tall.

The Track Meet- Running is a great aerobic exercise, and a lively piece of music in a steady 4/4 meter can help motivate the children. With school-age children, you can challenge them to race across the country and plot their daily progress on a U.S. map, thereby integrating physical fitness with geography and math lessons. Once around the room might, for instance, equal a mile on the map. With preschoolers, you could use a puzzle map instead. Every day that they run around the gym or playground or for the length of a favorite recording, another state is placed on the puzzle to show their progress.

Rabbits and 'Roos- Children love to pretend to be animals. Ask them to jump like rabbits and kangaroos, alternating from one to the other. Which is the larger of the two animals? Which would jump more heavily?

Giddy-Up- If there are children in your group who can't yet gallop, challenge the class to move like horses. Those children who can gallop will likely do so, and those who can't will simply pretend to be horses so that they can still meet your challenge and experience success.

In essence, any locomotor skill can be an aerobic activity if it is performed continuously. Begin slowly and gradually increase the length of the activities. Encourage the children to push themselves a bit further each time.