With Youth Day around the corner, now is the perfect time to talk about activity and exercise in the younger people of today.  The physical and cognitive benefits of exercise on our health and wellbeing are well documented, thanks to abundant research in this field. Exercise can lead to improved sleep, increased cognitive performance, better general health and increased strength. It can even help to manage symptoms of depression, ADD, anxiety, stress, diabetes…

The more we’re moving and active, the better we can feel both mentally and physically. And the younger we are when we build this into our daily routine, the more likely we are to continue to reap these benefits. With the abundance of information available at our fingertips, navigating what is “best practice” when it comes to physical exercise and activity can be overwhelming.

We thought we’d share some easy ideas here to help you get your children (and yourselves) started on the road of physical wellbeing.

Play-time is the best time

youth movement play

I am sure my OT peers will love me for saying this next part: a child’s job, their occupation, is play.  So for the early years, it is not too difficult to get infants involved in games and activities of differing styles, and there is no clear consensus that exercise before around 5 years old is ‘necessary’.  Physical development at this stage is hugely important, but a lot of children tend to get the activity or “exercise” needed just in day-to-day life. There are many things we can and should be doing to support this, but that could be a whole series of blogs in itself. A basic high-level summary…let them play and play with them as frequently as possible.

A tech-savvy, sedentary generation

youth movement technology

We live in a society where technology is entirely pervasive, bringing incredible benefits to our daily lives – and never more so than now, with the global pandemic keeping us all at home and leading naturally to more time online. Over the years this has lead to a significant shift in how free time is spent, and even how some education time is spent.

Play and activities in younger people have become predominantly sedentary. Online games, computer games and video games are a growing market; young people have their own phones and tablets; social media is more and more accessible; schools are using tablets and computers more. 

The WHO recommend that 5-17 year olds should complete 60 minutes (accumulated) of moderate to high intensity physical activity daily.  Fortunately our education systems have taken this into account to some degree, and there are aspects of physical activity in almost all school curriculums. During the pandemic, the responsibility of getting our children to be active, lies fully on parents. However, even when they return to school, we can’t leave it all to the curriculum and teachers. Prioritising exercise and activity still starts at home.

Balance modern life with good old fashioned movement

youth movement animal walks
  1. As a start, become overly conscious of how much time is spent on devices and counteract that time with physical activity, human to human contact, imaginative play, active learning (putting physical games into learning tasks) and the like. 
  2. If you’re trying to help your kids learn counting or sums, do it barefoot, outside and actively by using a ball-catch to complete the count. 
  3. Animal walks are a great thing to get young ones moving and its fun for them to imagine and impersonate the animals. Use this to get them to move between locations instead of “boring old walking”.
  4. Keep a healthy exercise regime yourself – whatever is fit for you – but it shows our kids that exercise is (or should be) a part of our lives.  It is not a chore, it should be fun, but we must learn the need and benefits to exercise earlier in life.

Unintended Outcomes

youth movement therapy

If we don’t make this a priority, there are consequences. Lack of movement manifest in a number of ways in the development and growth of younger adults and kids.  There is even a condition known as “text neck” where people are having postural issues and neck problems purely from the fact that they spend so much time looking down at screens.

Paediatric physiotherapists see many kids with low tone problems and poor posture; affected lower limb and foot development and strength; general and core weakness and so on. Often directly as a result of this sedentary lifestyle or at least exacerbated by it. Some of these can be avoided simply by getting our children to be more active and to learn to make it a part of their lives. Lack of muscular strength and support of joints by these muscles have longer term consequences. Musculoskeletal pain in later in life is often because they did not develop the capacity to handle load early on.

Keep it moving – start with barefeet

youth movement foot

A great place to start is with the development of the muscles of the feet and ankles.  It is easy for all of us to spend some time barefoot, but it is really important for young people and kids to do so.  All-too-often kids wear ill-fitting shoes because we don’t know any better and they seem harmless; kids in high heels (very cute but potentially very bad for them), sandals and slippers that take away from the foot’s need to naturally work. Get the feet developing strength out of the shoe, and it sets them up for fewer foot related problems later.

We don’t all need to be barefoot all the time, but it is important to have some time, small doses and often, being barefoot and more importantly weight bearing on those bare feet.

So, what do we want you to remember?  Movement, activity, exercise.  Get our youth moving again.  Luckily here in South Africa, and specifically in KZN we have an abundance of activities for all ages, indoor and outdoor.  Take advantage of this.  Our bodies want to move.

youth movement girls

For more information

If your child is struggling with low muscle strength, injuries, developmental delays or you simply need ideas on how to get them more active, come see Chris Harrod, our resident physiotherapist with a special interest in paediatric physiotherapy. He can be reached on his Facebook site by clicking HERE.

The article was written by Chris.