Should I make my children take more exercise?

Does your child spend more time playing inside rather than running around in the park? The British Heart Foundation warned several years ago that only one in eight kids was getting the recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day. But more recent research suggests that if your child gets into the habit of exercising they may have lifelong benefits from doing substantially less.

A paper in Psychological Medicine finds that even those who exercised a mere two or three times a month from the age of 11 scored better as 50-year-olds in memory tests. This much exercise equates to a trip to the swimming pool, cycle ride or walk in the park once a week. I'm not sure I could wrestle the electronic gadgets away from my children long enough to achieve this. But is it worth a battle of wills to save their cognitive function in later life?

The solution

The paper found that people at the age of 50 do better at mental tests (such as recalling 10 words immediately after they have been said and then after five minutes; or being able to identify two letters from a mixed-up sample from the alphabet) if they had exercised regularly since childhood. In fairness, one of the authors of the paper, Dr Alex Dregan of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Guy's and St Thomas's hospital, says it isn't clear exactly what benefit this provides but that theoretically exercising should protect the brain from injury in much the same way as it protects the heart from cardiovascular disease. "Exercise may build greater brain reserve, so that if you have a stroke you may recover better because you can draw on this reserve," he says. Physical exercise had the most benefit when it was a continuous habit over time and in the study this showed a reduction in the normal decline in mental functioning seen in ageing by a third in men and a quarter in women.

Other evidence supports the benefits of doing less than the recommended government guidelines – but that the exercise needs to be vigorous. Research published last year by the University of Manitoba in Canada showed that in a study of 600 children aged between nine and 17 who were given monitors tracking their physical activity for a week, those who had a minimum of seven minutes daily vigorous exercise were fitter and thinner. Disturbingly they also found that children spent 70% of their time on sedentary activities and outside school time their tracking monitors showed virtually no activity at all.

But if you can persuade your child to be occasionally energetic, you will, says Dr Dregan, reduce their risk of heart disease, protect their brains and help them to eat and sleep better.

Find out more

Psychological Medicine report

University of Manitoba research

• NHS: How much exercise should my child do?

• The Guardian: The best ways to exercise with children

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