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Preschoolers and Physical Fitness

What do we really know about physical fitness and our youth? Many times we assume that we know more than we actually do.

With children from age 6 to adolescence we know that:

  • Today's 6 to 9 year old child is typically heavier and fatter than he or she was 20 years ago.
  • Some of today's children spend more time per year watching TV than they do going to school.
  • Overweight teenagers are more likely to later in life develop heart disease (boys and girls), colon cancer (boys), and arthritis (girls) compared to their average weight peers.
But with preschoolers and children under the age of 6, we know very little about their overall fitness levels. In addition to the limited knowledge of preschooler's actual physical condition, several misconceptions often cloud the issue.
  • Some people mistakenly believe that young children are generally physically active, so little attention is needed to increasing their physical activity. This is probably true for most children under the ages of 3 or 4, but we often see increases in sedentary lifestyles even in young preschoolers.
  • A commonly held belief is that physical activity can injure the heart. There is no evidence to support this idea.
  • A few think that physical exercise may limit growth and maturation. Again, there is little support for this view.
With this limited knowledge about the issue, what is a parent to do? Remember that preschoolers may already be starting to model lifestyle behaviors. Parents should be promoting positive attitudes towards physical activity, making them fun and enjoyable.
  • If your 3 or 4 year old spends hours in front of the TV, interest them in active forms of play that burn calories. You may have to limit TV viewing. Give some of your own time and become involved in the activities.
  • When your preschooler is watching TV, if snacking is appropriate, make high nutrition/low-fat snacks common fare. Discourage the use of high-fat snacks that are often advertised on children's programs.
  • When possible and where safe, take your child outdoors where opportunities for burning up calories is limitless. How many times have you told your preschooler, and sometimes with good reason, not to run and jump in the house. In the yard or the park, youngsters can run and jump to their heart's content.

Above all else, remember that good lifestyle habits are often caught rather than taught. Whether it is the food choices they make or the physical activities they engage in, youngsters often model their behaviors after us. Many of us need to be better models.

Prepared by Robert L. Reber, Associate Professor of Nutrition Education and Extension Specialist, Department of Food Sciences and Human Nutrition and Karl S. Rosengren, Associate Professor, Kinesiology.