It’s no mystery that exercise boosts mental health and cognitive function in kids. A nine-month study of children aged seven through nine found that kids who were active could think more clearly. A March 2020 report published in Lancet found that 12-, 14- and 16-year-olds who exercised regularly were less likely to develop depression by age 18. Brain scans of 20-year-olds revealed that active young adults have better recall and thinking ability. The relationship between movement and brain health is so clear that the World Health Organization recommends an hour a day of moderate exercise for kids aged 5 through 17. Though most children in the United States get far less than that, regular recess and athletic teams provide at least some built-in movement for many children.
Along with countless other sobering repercussions, COVID-19 jeopardizes kids’ physical activity at a time when the emotional benefits that exercise provides are sorely needed. With school closures, suspension of team practices and the imperative to stay home and away from others, children and teenagers (and their agitated parents) will have to find other ways to keep moving. This is especially important now, as a global pandemic with potentially catastrophic repercussions has a way of igniting fear.
Some parents and athletic organizations are already making plans for how to keep kids active without schools, organized practices or games to fall back on. Ashley Quinn, a mother of three—and high-school lacrosse coach—said she’ll try to create a home routine with her young kids that includes regular exercise. “We will wake, eat breakfast, ‘attend school,’ and remain physically active with a set program of running, stick work, etc.—disguised as games for my younger daughters,” she said.
Julie McCleery at the University of Washington College of Education and the King County Play Equity Coalition created a list of activities as a direct response to COVID-19 related social distancing measures in Washington state. Some of those ideas are included in this list of resources from teachers, parents and experts on keeping kids moving while school is out.
For young kids:
Roberta Moran, the Athletic Director at Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey, which educates girls from K-12, said that the shutdown of organized sports could mark the return of more “old-school” games for young kids: bike rides, short jogs, wall-ball, shooting baskets in the driveway, running hills at a local park. Going outside to exercise is fine as long as other people aren’t close by, says Carolyn Cannuscio, who heads up research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.
For kids who may not have access to yards or parks, Hip Hop Public Health offers in-house alternatives. The online site promotes healthy eating and exercise through music and teaches hip hop dance moves to kids of all ages.
GoNoodle is another free online site that engages young children with videos and games. The site describes its games as “designed to tire kids out.”
The Physical Education Network offers a variety of games and resources for K-5 that include yoga, rhythm and movement, and mindfulness.
Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan, which ordinarily meets with grammar school girls outside to encourage running and self-esteem, created an in-home exercise program for girls and their parents.
The Persil Wild Explorers App offers 100 outdoor exploring activities of varying lengths for children and families. Some of these are geared for right outside the home.
For parents with patience, Monkey Spot Scavenger Hunts help kids organize and carry out at-home scavenger hunts.
Author and exercise physiologist Len Saunders recommends sets of ordinary calisthenics. Parents could clear out space in a basement or driveway, arrange “stations” for different exercises, and then set a timer for each activity. How many push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, jump-rope turns, burpees, and step-ups can a child carry out in 45 seconds? How about a minute? To keep the exercises challenging, change the amount of time at different stations, add in more exercises, and increase the number of circuits.
“The 7-minute workout app and The New York Times six-minute workouts are both really good options for getting in a decent workout without needing much space or time,” said Maya Vuchic, a high-school senior and runner. “High intensity interval training in general, be it with a jump rope or running in place or strength exercises, can be highly beneficial without miles of road to run on.” Videos of such workouts are available online.
For a more tailored approach, the app JeFit builds personalized workout programs of all kinds, including many to be done at home without equipment.
Freeletics offers training programs at all levels and connects athletes with a digital coach.
Pocket Yoga is an app for yoga enthusiasts, to be done anywhere including alone at home.
Down Dog does much the same, but adds high-intensity interval workouts and seven-minute sessions.
In the absence of symptoms of the virus, going to the gym is still an option, according to Albert Ko, the chair of the department of epidemiology at Yale. In an interview for The Atlantic, Ko advises visiting when the gym isn’t packed, wiping down all equipment before and after use, and washing hands before and after exercise.
Wondering how kids’ sports organizations on the national and state level are reacting? The Aspen Institute Project Play, a Washington-based think tank that keeps a close eye on such matters, has set-up a page to monitor these developments.