For young children, being active is part of their development. Crawling and walking are important physical milestones, and being on-the-go is a daily activity. As children get older, the concern is that the amount of physical activity they do may start to decrease as other more sedentary activities take over. Recent government reports suggest that there have been improvements in activity levels since the covid pandemic with 47% of children and young people meeting physical activity guidelines. Sadly, though 30.2% of children and young people do less than 20 minutes of physical activity per day.


How much exercise should my child be getting?

How much exercise do children need?

The latest NHS guidelines say that to maintain a basic level of health, children and young people aged five to 18 should do at least one hour of physical activity every day, ranging from moderate activity (such as cycling and playground activities) to vigorous activity (such as running) and active sport (like tennis or football), which gets the heart pumping harder.

In addition to this, three days a week, these activities should involve exercises to strengthen muscles, such as gymnastics, rope or tree climbing, and exercises for strong bones (running and jumping), games such as hopscotch and skipping with a rope. Muscle strength is necessary for daily activities, and to build and maintain strong bones, regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and help maintain a healthy weight. Bone-strengthening activities promote bone growth and strength.

What kinds of activity count?

Hoola hooping girl

The benchmark for physical activity is to make you breathe faster and feel warmer. Moderate activity raises your heart rate and makes you sweat. Vigorous activity, on the other hand, makes you breathe hard and fast and you’ll feel your heart beat faster.

Moderate activities for children include:

More like this
  • playing in the playground
  • riding a scooter
  • skateboarding
  • rollerblading
  • walking the dog
  • cycling on level ground or ground with few hills

Vigorous activities for children include:

  • playing chase
  • energetic dancing
  • swimming
  • running
  • gymnastics
  • football
  • jumping on a trampoline
  • martial arts, such as karate
  • cycling fast or on hilly terrain

What are the benefits of exercise for children?

Kids running through a finish line

There are many short and longer-term benefits to regular physical activity. Being active:

  • improves cardiovascular health
  • contributes to a healthy weight
  • improves bone health and muscle strength

It also supports development through movement, balance and coordination, improves concentration and learning, improves sleep patterns, supports social skills, and builds confidence and self-esteem. Overall, being physically active helps children feel good about themselves, helps them connect with their peers and enhances their perception of their self-worth and competence.

How to help your kids get more physically active

Kids pulling on a rope
  • Start the day well – creating habits that build activity into your child’s routine will make activity targets easier, whether it’s walking the dog or cycling to and from school.
  • Make it motivating – for younger children create a sticker chart as a reward for active minutes, for older children inspire them through endorsing positive associations with activity and team sports.
  • Set the right example – children learn by watching and copying others, so set the right example and get active yourself.
  • Make physical activity part of the family routine – take family walks or play active games together, avoid sedentary habits such as watching TV before and after meals.
  • Build activity into their day – make activity the natural choice by swapping the car or school bus for walking or cycling,

How much water should my child drink?

How much exercise do children need?

Children aged four to 13 should aim to drink approximately six to eight glasses of fluid a day, with younger children having smaller drinks more often. Water is great as it's not harmful to teeth, but other drinks such as semi-skimmed milk or one small (150ml) glass of unsweetened fruit juice (which counts as one of your 5-a-day) may also be included. During hot weather and after vigorous activity, it's a good idea to have a couple of extra glasses of water to stay hydrated.

It's important for children to stay hydrated and while stopping play to replenish fluid might not be top of their list of priorities, it's good to remind them that having a drink helps to keep them healthy. This is especially true for young children, who don’t always recognise the early stages of thirst, making them vulnerable to dehydration, particularly when they are playing sport or during warmer weather, both of which can drive up fluid losses. Even mild dehydration may cause tiredness, headaches and lack of concentration.

What are good snacks for exercise?

How much exercise do children need?

Having an appropriate snack within an hour or so after exercise may help replenish energy and help with muscle strength and repair. It may also help replace any mineral salts (electrolytes) lost through sweating. Special sports foods are not needed – a sandwich with a protein-rich filling such as tuna or peanut butter on toast or a piece of fruit and a yogurt is enough to provide a balance of nutrients.

Check out the advice in our healthy eating for kids guide and aim to provide a range of wholegrain starchy carbs, protein foods and fruits and vegetables, along with dairy foods to provide calcium – these will meet all the requirements for a recreational level of physical activity. Provided children are growing and are a healthy weight, it's likely that their nutritional needs will be being met.

Enjoyed this? You might also like...

Top 5 healthy snacks for kids
Childhood obesity – why is it on the rise?
Healthy eating: what schoolchildren need
37 healthy kids’ recipes

This article was last reviewed on 8th March 2024 by Kerry Torrens

Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years' experience.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.


All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

Choose the type of message you'd like to post

Choose the type of message you'd like to post