The summer holidays are a great time for children to relax and reboot after a hard year at school. However, as well as lazing in the sun, playing computer games or hanging out with friends, it's important that your kids stay active during their summer break.
According to NHS guidelines, children aged between 5-18 years need to do around 60 minutes of exercise every day. On at least three days per week, this exercise should involve activities that help strengthen muscles and bones - for example, hopping, swimming, tennis or gymnastics.
Unfortunately, despite the exercise children get as part of their PE lessons at school and the opportunity to run around with friends during breaks and lunchtimes, many children fall short of the 60-minute target even during the school term. In fact, figures released by Public Health England in June 2018 revealed that "just 23% of boys and 20% of girls aged 5 to 15 years meet the recommended level of physical activity of 60 minutes each day."
The summer holiday slump
With PE often squeezed out of a packed school curriculum and activity levels often poor during term time, summer could offer the ideal opportunity to get active. However, research by the 'ukactive Research Unit' in 2016 discovered that British children's fitness slumps by a further 80% during the summer holidays, with a marked rise in children's BMIs over the same period.
Children's fitness can increase significantly over a six-week period, so it's well worth encouraging your child to get moving during this time. Plus, if your child gets into the exercise habit at this time of year, they may well want to keep up their activity levels even when the new term starts.
The benefits of summer sport
As well as keeping obesity at bay, regular exercise offers a range of benefits.
"Exercise is incredibly important for children," agrees Dr Jeff Foster from TFJ Private GP Services. "Not only does it help to prevent obesity, keeping active can help to avoid future health problems. Plus, if exercise is taken outside, this helps to keep kids' vitamin D levels topped up."
Whilst time in natural daylight can be extremely beneficial, don't forget to apply a high-factor sun cream to your children if they are spending time outside on sunny days.
Boost eye health
Time in the sunlight can also be good for children's eyesight.
"Evidence also shows that the violet part of sunlight has been shown to have a protective element against myopia (short-sightedness). Studies show that at least two hours per day can reduce risk of myopia," explains Bhavin Shah, behavioural optometrist and myopia control consultant at Central Vision Opticians.
However, it's also important to ensure children's eyes are protected during the summer. "Excessive exposure to UV light can damage the eyes, so, in the same way you use sunblock for the skin, it's essential to protect children's eyes from the sun," adds Shah. To minimise exposure, choose sunglasses for your child that offer appropriate UV protection, and advise them to spend some time in the shade when the sun is at its strongest.
Finally, staying active can help children to feel more positive.
"As well as the physical benefits, exercise ensures our children get plenty of endorphins, which help them to feel upbeat and happy," explains Alex Taylor, Children’s Fitness Coach from KidzLoveFit.
In the classroom
As well as helping them to improve their physical health, keeping fit can also improve classroom performance.
"Exercise and movement have been found to improve cognition, mental function and social development," explains Shah. "Having a strong upper body also helps to keep the head and neck upright and stable, enabling the eyes and visual system to process information more effectively."
So how do we ensure that our children continue to receive sufficient exercise during their six-week break?
In an ideal world, we'd all be able to take a six-week break from work, or from the daily tasks that come with running a household and spend it with our children. In reality, most parents are performing a complex juggling act during the summer holidays to ensure that they meet their own commitments as well as look after their children.
Plan for success
However, with a little planning, exercise can become an habitual and structured part of each day.
"I recommend parents sit down with their children and create a wish list," agrees Taylor, who is also a mother-of-three. "Write down the things you'd like to do during the holidays - from a picnic in the park, to a camping weekend; then work out a schedule to make sure you fit it all in. I always do this with my children and find that ticking things off the wish list makes sure I spend quality time with the kids, as well as reducing my guilt when I have to work!"
Keep a schedule
As well as the more involved activities, Taylor also recommends working a daily schedule to ensure that children take regular exercise during the day.
"When you're trying to juggle activities, it's easy to sit children down with their iPad® or put a DVD on," she says. "For a small period of time, that's OK - the problem comes when we end up doing that for most of the day."
One way to ensure your children have a healthy balance is to try to build in the same sort of routine as they have at school.
"I try to replicate what they'd be doing during their school day - taking a break where we kick a ball around for twenty minutes, a walk to the park or getting the bikes out. Structuring your day gives the children consistency, and also reduces the pressure on you, making it a more enjoyable process," she explains.
Make it fun
Making exercise fun is an important part of keeping your child motivated. There are many different ways to keep active, and the summer holidays provide a great opportunity to try different activities on for size.
"At a younger age, it's about making it fun," agrees Foster. "It's not about increasing sporting performance. If you can get your children to do something they enjoy, that's the important thing."
Another way to motivate your little ones is to get them to join a local sporting initiative or club where they'll be playing with other children of a similar age.
"If it's something their friends are doing, they are more likely to want to do it too," agrees Foster.
Spark their interest
If getting your little ones off the sofa is a struggle, fun programmes like NHS Change4Life's Train Like a Jedi campaign could help. With a fun, play-along video, this initiative could encourage even the most sedentary child to take part. And if your child isn't a fan of Star Wars, on the website there are many other ideas for getting your kids active.
So, whether it's a walk in the park, jumping wildly on a trampoline or plunging into a swimming pool, keeping children active throughout the summer break is crucial for their fitness - both now and in the future.