Child health and exercise: why kite chasing matters

A lovely warm windy autumn day in the local park. The air is wild with leaves and the sound of children laughing and playing. I am chasing after my little daughter as she repeatedly tumbles to keeps pace with her kite as it sails across the sky waving its tail. It soars, swoops, swirls and finally dives at the feet of an oak tree. Both of us are excitedly flushed, breathless and bruised but all the better for it I feel.

In my case a rare moment of joyful exertion running and falling but also an awareness of how unfit I am. A multitude of self-convincing excuses of why this is so. I work long hours, too much of this, too much of that to make time for exercise. Exercise is a chore; it's not play; it's not fun. I will do it tomorrow I convince myself. I am sure I am not the only one kidding myself. We all do don't we.

As a child calling on street friends, playing on any patch of green, breathless and sweaty, running, falling, getting dirty and bruised; in any weather, a want, a need to be outside. It was so much fun. The flashback makes me smile. Why had I forgotten how much fun it was to play and, yes, to exercise?!

However, I'm not just a parent who needs to get healthy and exercise but a paediatrician also. Perhaps I should know better but what advice would I give myself and to any other parent regarding their child's exercise and health? There's loads of evidence which shows exercise is an important key to reducing our risk of major illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes (type 2) and cancer and some mental health problems such as depression and anxiety when we are adults.

Research also shows that regular physical activity in childhood can boost your child's self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, concentration and academic performance. Essentially our body was designed for physical activity, and without enough exercise it starts to slow down, clog up and become unhealthy. But because of our modern lifestyles and an increasing reliance on technology, we are less active nowadays, both as adults and as children.

It has therefore become even more important to build regular exercise and activities into our daily and weekly diaries. But it's important to keep it fun and to encourage your child to find activities they enjoy. This way your child will not find the exercise a chore and they are more likely to stick at it.

The type of activity depends on the individual. So exercise can be team-led, such as football or basketball, joining a club or having lessons such as tennis, dance or golf, or activities with family and friends such as a bike ride, going for a walk or swimming. It can also mean walking to school rather than taking the bus or being driven.

There are specific recommendations published by the NHS and expert bodies on how much exercise your child needs. In summary, for children less than five years old, they should be active for at least three hours per day and older children should take part in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise per day. Moderate-intensity activity means working hard enough to raise your heartbeat, so you breathe harder and begin to sweat, but are still able to talk.

As a busy parent myself I know perfectly well how difficult it can be to follow these recommendations exactly but essentially the message from these experts is that, on a regular basis, you should get your child moving and active and, in my case, I should be chasing after my daughter chasing after a kite.

 
Dr Nawaz is an experienced NHS consultant paediatrician (children's doctor) with nearly 20 years' experience of working in partnership with parents taking care of children.