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What Is Physical Activity?

Physical activity is “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure.”2 In other words, being physically active means moving the body more. There are three major types of physical activity:

  1. Aerobic—This type increases cardiorespiratory fitness. Your heartrate should increase and you likely will breathe harder than normal. You can think of this a as endurance activity. Examples: brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming, hiking.
  2. Muscle Strengthening—This type includes resistance training and weightlifting. You might lift, pull, or push objects. Examples: weightlifting, resistance bands, push-ups, pull ups, picking up boxes, climbing trees, playing on play equipment.
  3. Bone Strengthening—This type places force or impact on the bones to promote strength. Examples: jumping, running, weightlifting.

Why Is Physical Activity Important?

Physical activity is an important component of a healthy lifestyle and can improve health outcomes across the lifespan. When we are healthy, we’re more capable of achieving our goals and have a higher quality of life.

Physical activity can provide health benefits regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, health status, body size/shape, and ability status. Research has shown that as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) increases, all-cause mortality (death from all causes) decreases1.

There are a number of benefits to being physically active for all ages. Physical activity:

  • Reduces anxiety and depression symptoms.
  • Reduces blood pressure.
  • Improves sleep.
  • Improves aspects of cognition and brain functioning (including improved academic achievement, executive function, processing speed, and memory in children ages six to 13 years).
  • Assists in achieving a healthy weight.
  • Improves insulin sensitivity (particularly important for type 2 diabetes and blood sugar management)
  • Improves cardiorespiratory fitness and strength.
  • Prevents or improves management of chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers1

Physical Activity Recommendations

The guidelines below are based on the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Overall, these are generally accepted recommendations by age and development stage across many countries worldwide.  

Guidelines for Preschoolers (Ages 3-5)

  • Be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development and include a variety of activity types.

Guidelines for Children and Adolescents (Ages 6-17)

  • Participate in 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity daily.
  • The 60 minutes should be comprised primarily of aerobic exercise and include muscle strengthening and bone strengthening exercises three days per week.
  • Physical activity should be age appropriate, enjoyable, and offer variety.

Guidelines for Adults (Ages 18+)

  • Aim to move more and sit less throughout the day. For health benefits, participate in 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. This is equivalent to about 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
  • Physical activity should include aerobic exercise throughout the week. Include muscle strengthening exercises two or more days per week.
  • Older adults should include balance training weekly and be physically active as their fitness level and health status allow.
  • Women who are pregnant generally can participate in physical activity. Consult with your health care provider whether or how to adjust physical activity during pregnancy.
  • Adults living with chronic health conditions or disabilities should engage in physical activity as able. Consult a health care provider about specific amounts and types of physical activity appropriate for various conditions and abilities.1

Overall, don’t worry whether you are perfect in meeting the recommendations every time. It is understandable that families are busy and circumstances vary. The important thing is to create a healthy lifestyle over time. Moving more in ways that are suitable for your schedule, resources, and interests can provide health benefits.

In other words, do what you can!

Family-Based Physical Activity

It is generally accepted that the family is an important factor in improving the physical activity of children and adolescents.3,4Family-based interventions are the gold standard for preventing childhood obesity.3 However, there is no consensus on the best parenting strategies or how parents should help their families meet the physical activity recommendations. We have included a summary of research available that families can use to inform their decisions around physical activity.

There are many ways to increase physical activity. This may include routine physical activity, free play, or sports and games. Children and adolescents are less likely to participate in adult or routine forms of physical activity, such as going to the gym to lift weights or run on a treadmill.3

Physical activity should be appropriate for the child’s developmental stage. Younger children may not have motor skills to participate in organized sports or routine physical activity. Thus, free play or unstructured physical activity may be more appropriate. 

  • Ages 6-8—Focus on fun instead of competition. At this age, they are still learning basic motor skills like catching, throwing, and kicking. Free play is usually a good choice.
  • Ages 9-12—Kids will become more coordinated at this age. Trying new sports may be appropriate.
  • Ages 13+—Help kids find an activity they like and consider their interests, abilities, and enjoyment. This could be an organized team sport (basketball, soccer, dance), individual sport (karate, climbing, running), or non-sport activity (walking, hiking, frisbee).5

It is estimated that only 20 percent of children and adolescents meet physical activity guidelines.4 Research shows that participation in physical activity for girls decreases during adolescents compared to boys.1 Other research has shown parents are more reluctant to allow girls to participate in outdoor play if they perceive decreased safety of the neighborhood.6

Supporting Physical Activity In Children & Teens

Finding activities that all family members can participate in might be challenging but should be appropriate for all levels of fitness. It may be advantageous to choose an activity according to the lowest level of fitness.

For example, instead of choosing a strenuous four-mile hike, could your family go on a one or two mile easy hike? The latter would still be an acceptable form of physical activity and encourage movement for everyone.

Consider these areas to increase support for family activity:

  • Encouragement—Can you provide education about the importance of physical activity? Can you provide support by spectating an athletic event?
  • Logistics and Environmental Facilitation—Built environments (sidewalks, playgrounds, and the like) are important for physical activity. Can you transport your child to activities? Is there a neighborhood carpool to and from activities? What is the physical environment in your neighborhood?
  • Modeling and Co-Activity—Create buy-in for the whole family. Children who see parents being active are more likely to participate. What are some activities you can do together?4

Key Takeaways

  • There are no set guidelines for parenting around physical activity. Consider your family size, neighborhood, and interests/characteristics and find what works best for you.
  • Create buy-in for the whole family. Physical activity should be enjoyable and suitable. Help your child find their favorite form of physical activity.
  • Support teens in physical activity so they are encouraged to be lifelong “movers.”
  • Incorporate aerobic, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening exercises weekly.


  1. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. 2nd ed. Published 2018. 2018. Accessed November 18, 2021.
  2. World Health Organization. Physical Activity. November, 26 2020. Accessed November 18, 2021.
  3. Foster C, Moore JB, Singletary CR, Skelton JA. Physical activity and family-based obesity treatment: a review of expert recommendations on physical activity in youth. Clin Obes. 2018;8(1):68-79. doi:10.1111/cob.12230
  4. Rhodes RE, Perdew M, Malli S. Correlates of Parental Support of Child and Youth Physical Activity: a Systematic Review. J. Behav. Med.2020;27:636–646.
  5. Motivating School-Age Kids to Be Active. Nemours Children’s Health. January 2017. Accessed November 18, 2021.
  6. Kepper MM, Staiano AE, Katzmarzyk PT, et al. Using mixed methods to understand women's parenting practices related to their child's outdoor play and physical activity among families living in diverse neighborhood environments. Health Place. 2020;62:102292. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2020.102292

Next Steps

If you think your teen needs assistance with their diet, schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, family medicine, or internal medicine provider. View our providers in each of these areas.


Research on healthy eating for children and teens identifies how much food from each food group is required for their growth, development, and activity. With these in mind, we created healthy recipes for you and your family to cook at home with low cost and short cook and prep times.

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