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Spring is here, finally, and thankfully. Milder weather combined with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine gives us hope that we can safely start enjoying our favorite outdoor activities. The gloom of last year’s lockdown when gyms and play spaces were closed, school sports seasons cancelled, and doing much of anything outside the home was inadvisable at best, is a hard memory on which none of us want to dwell. We looked for ways to help our kids stay active in spite of dark times. There are some simple ways to get your kids moving while stuck inside, whatever the circumstances, that will boost their mood, improve their learning, and will not turn you into a part-time PE teacher. 

Kids Were More Sedentary During the Pandemic

Kids who are learning remotely or in hybrid format do not have access to the consistent exercise opportunities integrated in a school day for students learning in person like recess play time, gym class, or team sports. Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC found that children were less physically active and more sedentary during the April and May 2020 lockdown compared to February 2020, pre-pandemic. Notably, because it points to worsening of an existing trend, the gap in activity levels was wider for older kids than younger ones. The study, published in September in BMC Public Health, concluded that “short-term changes in PA [physical activity] and SB [sedentary behavior] in reaction to COVID-19 may become permanently entrenched, leading to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in children.” We want to help kids get back on track for good health.

How Exercise Can Improve Mood

Physical exercise triggers secretion within the brain and nervous system of endorphins, hormones that serve as a natural pain reliever and stimulate good feelings. Although uncommon, periods of intense or lengthy physical activity may trigger the release of endocannabinoids into the bloodstream and result in the euphoric feeling termed a “runner’s high.” A study through the BBC Learning’s Terrific Scientific campaign, supported by the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh and the Physiological Society, collected mood and cognition data from over 7,300 pupils enrolled in UK schools. According to Dr. Josie Booth, of the University of Edinburgh, “15 minutes of self-paced exercise can significantly improve a child’s mood, attention and memory – enhancing their ability to learn.” Plus, doing some daily activity that tires kids out can improve sleeping patterns, which are essential to kids’ mood stability, emotional development, and ability to self-regulate.

Why Exercise is Important for Learning

We include exercise in a school curriculum because exercise has been proven to lead to better learning and improved behavior in classrooms. According to an article by the American Psychological Association, citing pediatric research, physical activity in a child’s schedule is good for nearly every aspect of kids’ health. Even short bursts of activity, especially before or in between online classes, can activate focus and attention, improve cognitive development, and increase self-regulation while decreasing behavioral outbursts. A Dartmouth study found that a mere 12 minutes of activity a day can improve adolescent students’ ability to focus for up to 45 minutes post exercise, even if there were distractions around them, and improve reading comprehension in certain populations.

Tips to Encourage Kids to Exercise

Here are some ideas for how to stay physically active when you are stuck at home—without building a Crossfit gym in your living room:

1. Make exercise a game. We have been known to add zucchini to chocolate muffin batter to boost our kid’s veg intake; the same principle holds true here! Disguising exercise as a game is an excellent way to help kids release energy in creative, exciting, and novel ways while indoors. Several of our favorites are listed below. All are uncomplicated to set up and execute and involve either no materials or things you probably already have on hand.  

  • Scavenger/treasure hunt
  • Balloon Bop
  • Simon Says 
  • Freeze dance to favorite songs — Explore songs in new genres or stick with the ones that inspire your kids to “bust a move.”
  • Dance Party — Throw it back to dance party favorites like the Electric Slide, Macarena, Casper Slide, Cupid Shuffle, Cha Cha Slide: Part 2, The Twist, Hokey Pokey, Gangnam Style, and The Chicken Dance, which involve beginner-friendly choreography that repeats. 
  • Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better More Of! — We are all in favor of some friendly competition when it comes to keeping your child healthy. Partner up with your kid as your fitness pal and try to one-up each other with jumping jacks, squats, high knees, etc.
  • UNO Fitness — Love the card game UNO? We do, too. Try pairing it with movement for added excitement and health benefits.  
  • Weekly Fitness Log — Your student plans out in advance the exercises they would like to do each day of the new week and then logs their progress during the week. Each completed log earns a sticker on their Fitness Goals chart, progressing towards a reward they have agreed upon with you, or a special surprise.  

2. Make exercise a family affair. Tools like an exercise jar, with slips of paper or popsicle sticks that contain a movement—things like burpees, push-ups, crab walks, and sit-ups—are a simple way to get everyone in the family up and moving. Put 15 minutes a day on the calendar when the whole family can be together, have everyone suggest activities for the jar, then let family members take turns drawing the prompts. Not only does exercising as a family bring you all together for quality time spent exemplifying healthy behavior together, but sticking to a schedule also reinforces the importance of goal-setting. Having kids add exercise to their daily schedule allows them to practice goal-setting: as they begin to set goals for themselves and work to meet those goals, kids will increase their self-esteem, self-confidence, and autonomy, which boosts mood as well. 

3. Make screen time a little more active. If you can’t get your kids off their screens, try incorporating screens into exercise. Whatever your child’s age or interests, there are plenty of free apps and YouTube channels designed for kids’ fitness. For children’s yoga there’s YouTube’s Cosmic Kids channel, Yoga with Adriene for Virtual Learners, and for guided movement there’s GoNoodle’s channel. Apps are great for a variety of workouts, like Sworkit Kids, which offers physical activities for kids of all ages, or Exercise: At Home Workout App, in which an animated orange monster leads you through customizable workouts. For teenagers, Nike Training Club is free and has on-demand studio-style classes along with tips for nutrition and wellness.

If your child is having trouble focusing and sitting still, is more lethargic, or is getting frustrated more easily and frequently as they learn online, contact Organizational Tutors today to explore how executive function coaching can help your student.

OT Team

Author OT Team

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