How much exercise do children need?

Dietitian and leading children's health expert Frankie Phillips explains why exercise is important for your child's physical health and mental wellbeing.

Child on roller skates

For most children, being active is part of development. Crawling and then walking are important physical milestones, and for young children, being on the go is a daily activity.

As children get older, the amount of physical activity they do can start to decrease as other more sedentary activities take over. Recent Government reports show that although only about 5% of 2-5 year olds are sedentary for more than six hours per day, by the age of 13 around 20% of children are sedentary for more than six hours per day. Weekends show them being even less active, with around 35% of 13-15 year olds being sedentary for more than six hours.

How much exercise should my child be getting?

The latest NHS guidelines say that to maintain a basic level of health, children and young people aged 5 to 18 should do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, ranging from moderate activity (such as cycling and playground activities) to vigorous activity (such as running) and active sports (like tennis or football) which will get the heart pumping harder. In addition, on at least three days per week, these activities should involve exercises to strengthen muscles, such as gymnastics, rope or tree climbing, and exercises for strong bones such as 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.

Currently, children are far from achieving these targets – latest studies show that only 23% of boys and 20% of girls are actually meeting them.

What kinds of activity count?

The benchmark is for physical activity to make you breathe faster and feel warmer. Moderate activity raises your heart rate and makes you sweat, and you can still talk but would struggle to have a conversation. Vigorous activity, on the other hand, makes you breathe hard and fast and feel your heart beat faster, and you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

Moderate activities 

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


Vigorous activities 

  • 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?

There are many short and longer-term benefits from encouraging children to be regularly physically active. In terms of physical health, being active improves cardiovascular health, contributes to a healthy weight and improves bone health and muscle strength. It also helps aspects of development through movement and coordination, improves concentration and learning, improves sleep patterns, supports learning of social skills, and builds confidence and self-esteem. Overall, being physically active helps children to feel good. 

Snacks for kids

How much water should my child drink?

Children aged 4 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 to drink, as it is not harmful to teeth, but other drinks such as semi-skimmed milk, or a small (150ml) glass of unsweetened fruit juice (which counts as one of your 5-a-day) can 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 keep 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 enough to play. 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 warm weather, both of which can drive up their body fluid losses. Even mild dehydration can cause tiredness, headaches and lack of concentration.

What are good snacks for exercise?

Having a snack within an hour or so after exercise can help replenish energy, and also helps with muscle strength and repair, and replace any mineral salts lost through sweating. Special sports foods are not needed – simply a sandwich with a protein filling such as tuna or peanut butter on toast, a piece of fruit and a yogurt is enough to provide a good balance of nutrients and not just empty calories. In general, simply following the advice in our healthy eating for kids guide for meals and snacks – providing a range of wholegrain starchy carbohydrates, protein foods and fruits and vegetables, along with dairy foods to provide calcium – will meet all the requirements of a recreational level of physical activity. Provided children are growing and a healthy weight is maintained, it’s likely that nutritional needs are being met.

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Comments, questions and tips

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Stephen Chin's picture
Stephen Chin
4th Jul, 2018
The public is too obsessive about exercise. A normal healthy child knows exactly how much exercise he needs. Ask him, "What is exercise?" And he will answer, "Ï do not know. I only want to play". His answer shows he knows much more than we do about exercise.
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