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A recent Canadian study found that of children in three age groups – less than 18 months, 18 months to five years, and those older than five – only the toddlers were getting the right amount of exercise.Nagy-Bagoly Ilona/Getty Images/iStockphoto

By now, it's safe to say that every parent of a young child has heard the message that physical activity is important. In my pediatric practice in Toronto, I discuss it with every family I encounter.

But many families find it difficult to navigate the research and discover how much physical activity is actually needed.

Take, for example, a Canadian study published last week in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. Researchers from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto measured the physical activity in children in three age cohorts: less than 18 months, 18 months to five years, and those older than five. The children wore accelerometers, which measure movement, as an indicator of activity.

The researchers found that of the three groups, only the toddlers – ages 18 months to five years – were getting the right amount of exercise, at least as it's defined by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. The CSEP, a voluntary organization of health professionals who study exercise in Canada, says that active pursuits for toddlers include climbing stairs and playing outside.

But in the recent paper, researchers highlighted a complicating factor. Perhaps our infants and toddlers are actually more active than was measured in this study. In fact, we may need a better way to measure young children's activity. As many infants and toddlers do not yet crawl or walk, it can be more challenging to assess their physical activity with the accelerometer they used.

Here's something else I've noticed about physical-activity guidelines: Often, a parent's idea of what counts for physical activity is different from what guidelines are counting.

The message many parents are getting is that in order for something to count as physical activity, it has to be organized or highly vigorous, whether running outside, going to the park or organized sports. In reality, the guidelines are advocating something much more basic.

Here's what I mean: When it comes to infants being "active," think about simple activities such as tummy time, reaching for or grasping balls or other toys, playing or rolling on the floor or crawling around the home. For toddlers or preschoolers, being active is doing anything that gets the child moving. That could be climbing stairs, exploring their environment outside, crawling, brisk walking, running or dancing. All of these are what children want to do naturally, so long as they are not confined to a stroller or plunked in front of a screen: just move.

I apply these ideas in my own home. My toddler is 11 months old. He crawls everywhere. We don't rush to pick him up. He crawls to us. We watch him crawl up the stairs or walk from each piece of furniture. He enjoys being active and we encourage it by letting him explore. His awake time is likely 90 per cent active – as it should be.

Many of the activities I just described, at least when it comes to infants, aren't the type of thing that accelerometers, which were used in the recent Toronto study, are able to measure well. So before we get too concerned about what the science has to tell us, the best thing to do is just loosen up, and go play.

Dr. Dina Kulik is a pediatrician in Toronto and provides child health information to parents and the public through television, radio, print media and her blog. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.