Families isolating inside together are juggling a lot–new distance learning for kids, work demands or new unemployment for parents, and, for everyone, adjustment to life in the era of COVID-19. Amidst all those pressures, exercise can feel like one more daunting item on the family to-do list.

But encouraging children to move their bodies is important, not only for physical health, but for mental health and cognitive development, too.

“There are so many benefits to exercise, and we keep discovering more,” says Melissa Santos, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and clinical director of the obesity clinic at Connecticut Children’s Hospital. “There’s no part of a body that doesn’t benefit from physical activity.”

Essential Benefits

Mental Health

Physical activity has a small but significant effect on the mental health of children and adolescents ages 6 to 18, according to a review of 114 studies. On average, young people who exercise more have lower levels of depression, stress and psychological distress, and higher levels of positive self-image, life satisfaction and psychological well-being (Rodriguez-Ayllon, M., et. al., Sports Medicine, Vol. 49, No. 9, 2019). Exercise may also protect children’s mental health over time: One study found that 6- to 8-year-olds who got more exercise had fewer symptoms of major depressive disorder two years later (Zahl, T., et. al., Pediatrics, Vol. 139, No. 2, 2017).


Regular exercise can improve behavior, including those with behavioral health disorders like autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression. In a study of children with behavioral health disorders in Kindergarten through 10th grade, those who participated in a cycling program for 30-40 minutes 2 days a week experienced significantly better self-regulation and fewer disciplinary time-outs (Bowling, A., et. al., Pediatrics, Vol. 139, No. 2, 2017).

Attention And Academic Performance

In the short term, children are better able to pay attention after they’ve been physically active, according to a review of research in children ages 6 to 12. And kids who are regularly active over the long term have better academic performance, on average (de Greeff, J.W., et. al. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Vol. 21, No. 5, 2018).

Cognitive Development

Exercise and physical fitness are linked to better thinking skills. An analysis of studies in children ages 7 to 12 found regular exercise was linked to a small but measurable improvement in executive function, the set of skills used for learning, solving problems and self-control (Jackson, W. Journal of Neurosurgical Anesthesiology, Vol. 28, No. 4, 2016). A review of research in children under age 5 also found preliminary evidence that physical activity may benefit cognitive development in early childhood (Carson, V., et. al., Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Vol. 19, No. 7, 2016).

Establishing Exercise Habits

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of activity daily. But don’t despair if you’re nowhere near that goal. “Moving around doesn’t have to be an ambitious exercise plan,” says Kimberly Guion Reynolds, PhD, ABPP, a pediatric psychologist at the Institute on Development and Disability at Oregon Health & Science University.

Here are seven strategies to get you started.

1. Stay safe.

It’s important to move safely, especially during this public health crisis. “Physical distancing continues to be important, and you should also consider the risk of accidental injury,” Reynolds says. “Make sure you’re watching children around streets and driveways, and monitor them whenever climbing is involved.”

2. Walk the walk.

Kids are more likely to exercise when they see caregivers being active. “That doesn’t mean you have to do the same activities as your child, but modeling physical activity is a really important motivator for kids and teens,” says Reynolds. You’ll likely find it helps you, too. “Instead of thinking of exercise as an extra thing you have to do, it can help to think of movement as one of the coping skills we can use to get through this time,” she adds.

3. Make it a family affair.

You’ll all benefit–and probably get less push-back from kids—if you make exercise part of your family’s routine. “When taking a daily walk together is just something we do as a family, it becomes non-negotiable,” Santos says.

4. Find the hook.

Figure out what activities your child is most likely to enjoy. If you have competitive teens, make it a challenge to see who takes the most steps in a day. If your child loves music, find some dance videos to wiggle to. Exercise should be fun, especially for kids.

5. Consider rewards.

Rewards can motivate kids to move. Younger kids might be inspired by small daily prizes like stickers in exchange for active time. Older kids might benefit from working toward a weekly activity goal, with prizes like picking the film for movie night, or 30 minutes of extra screen time.

6. Start slow.

If your family isn’t used to exercising regularly, start with small goals. Instead of forcing your kids to do an hourlong exercise video, plan a few 10-minute breaks throughout the day to stretch or walk. As it becomes routine, you can increase the time and intensity.

7. Forget perfect.

Any movement is better than none, so don’t throw up your hands if your kids don’t achieve the recommended 60 minutes a day. “We have to be realistic. This isn’t normal times, and the last thing we want to do is put pressure on ourselves to be perfect,” Santos says. “We know any physical activity is helpful, so just do your best.”


How Can I Help My Child Be More Physically Active?, American Heart Association 

Ways to be Active, President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition

Energy Out: Daily Physical Activity Recommendations, American Academy of Pediatrics