Benefits and Cautions of Physical Activity
With the increase in incidence of obesity, teachers are becoming concerned about energy balance as it affects not only energy intake but also energy expenditure. Physical activity helps children and adults: expend energy and increase muscle and bone strength; increase lean muscle mass and decrease body fat; maintain weight; and enhance psychological well-being. Physical inactivity is considered a risk factor for developing coronary artery disease and increases the risk of stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol levels, and diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends a daily combination of moderate and vigorous physical activity for both children and adults. Persons of all ages should include physical activity in a comprehensive program of health promotion and disease prevention and should increase their habitual physical activity to a level appropriate to their capacities, needs, and interests. All children age 5 and older should participate in at least 30 minutes of enjoyable, moderate-intensity activities every day, and a minimum of 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity at least 3 to 4 days each week, to achieve cardiovascular fitness. Adults and children should therefore allow a total of 60 minutes per day for physical activity whether at school or home.
Positive energy balance (greater energy or caloric intake compared with calories expended or used) produces weight gain in excess of needs. Needs of the body include primarily growth, development, repair of tissue, and physical activity. The teacher can be instrumental in increasing exercise by increasing the physical activities in the child-care center and therefore increasing the young child's energy expenditure. As the problem of obesity is more widely recognized, parents may pressure teachers to modify a child's dietary intake and physical activity patterns.
Caution regarding preschool exercise programs comes from both the early childhood and the health care professions. Exercise programs at too early an age put infants and young children in inappropriate learning situations as well as expose them to the risk of physical and/or psychological damage. Most children can get all the exercise they need by doing what they do naturally as they use their senses and movements to explore their world.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, after a 2-year study of preschool programs, concluded that infant exercise programs do nothing to improve a baby's physical fitness. The Academy advises general play until age 6. Exercise programs geared to children under age 3 do not enhance the development of the healthy child. Structured exercise programs do not belong in the early childhood curriculum. Teachers should provide a physical environment that provides freedom of movement and exploration.
The teacher can effectively promote physical activity in young children by:
- recognizing developmentally appropriate motor skills
- providing opportunities for physical activity
- encouraging children to participate in activity
- being a positive role model
- supervising children to ensure safety
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