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Toddler Health and Fitness

Most toddlers have a natural ability to keep on the go for much of the day and even though you may often wish they would slow down and give you a break, this very energy should be encouraged and harnessed to prepare them for a life of health and fitness.

Every young child should be exposed to the fun of exercise to set them up for a life of enjoying physical exercise so that they avoid the danger of obesity, osteoporosis and all the other diseases that come from lack of body movement. The chilling statistic today is that 1 in 4 of our youth in the US is overweight or obese. As parents, we have a duty to reverse that trend.

As soon as your toddler makes those first few steps, you can introduce a daily walk in the park or other safe place so that he is getting both fresh air and exercise. Each day encourage him to walk a little bit further – the stroller can be there for when he starts to get tired - but don’t just always pop him into the stroller as a matter of course whenever you have to get from A to B. You want to build up those leg muscles. As he grows in strength and confidence, the walking will progress into running and this means mom or dad can start running too. You will end up with exercise for the whole family! What could be better than that? Another big plus is that at the end of the day, your young child will sleep better.

Most parks have good playground apparatus and your toddler will enjoy using this and building up strength and skills in climbing. Taking a ball along to the park will also give your toddler enjoyment, fun and exercise as he chases the ball and learns to throw, catch and kick the ball. You may even end up with a future famous sportsman – many of today’s high achieving sportsmen and women started very young!

In addition, there are now many physical exercise classes for toddlers which you can investigate. These will provide social interaction for your child with other children as well as exercise and fun opportunities. You get to meet other moms too. Such classes cover swimming, yoga, gymnastics as well as music and movement.

The American Heart Association recommends that toddlers get at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity every day plus several hours per day of unstructured activity. Apart from when they are sleeping, toddlers should not be inactive for more than 60 minutes at a time. You might need to think carefully about this to see how your toddler spends his day?

Here are lots of fun games and exercises for your toddler to enjoy with you at home:

o Walking the tightrope – this is where you stick down a long piece of masking tape to the floor and you walk together along the tightrope. Try to stay on the line plus you can walk backwards, forwards and sideways. This exercise helps develop balance while exercising the foot muscles.

o Stretches – this is where you stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and have your child follow your movements. Move into a crouching position and stretch slowly upwards until you are standing. Stretch your hands over your head. Then lower your hands slowly to your sides. Return to a crouching position and repeat. This stretches the entire body.

o Head, shoulders, knees and toes – this is where you stand facing your child while slowly calling out the names of each body part in the title at the same time asking your child to touch each body part as you name it. Once your child does this successfully, you can mix up the order of the body parts and then quicken your pace. Apart from helping your child identify his body parts, it aids flexibility as well as understanding the concepts of up, down, low and high.

As your child gets a bit older, you can try these further exercises too:

o Jump and twist – this is where you hold your child’s hands as you jump together as high as you can while putting as much spring into your jump as possible. Land with ankles and knees slightly bent. Then jump with hands by your sides. Then twist feet and hips and pump arms from side to side. This strengthens the legs and improves circulation.

o Rock and roll – this is where you sit on the floor and clasp your hands under your knees. Your child should copy what you do. Rock on your back and keep your hands tucked in. After several repetitions, alternate to side to side rocking. Be careful not to rock on your shoulders as this could strain your neck and make rocking difficult. This exercise stretches the back and strengthens the abdominal muscles.

o Mirror game – this is where you ask your child to do exactly as you do, as if he were your reflection in the mirror. Always make slow movements and take turns in being leader. Make movements that require flexibility and exercises such as bending at the waist, stretching your hands overhead, standing on your tip toes, do deep knee bends, running on the spot etc. This results in good co-ordination and will help with writing skills when he is older. This game also provides flexibility and aerobic activity.

Remember that children who are physically inactive become couch potato adults. Regular exercise improves bone health; builds endurance and muscle strength; lowers risk factors for serious health problems like heart disease, colon cancer and diabetes; keeps blood pressure in check and fosters self-esteem.

The young child in your care deserves nothing less.