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Toddler Exercise and Nutrition Guide

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Your Toddler’s Health & Fitness is Important 

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 encourages 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?

Table of Contents:

Exercises for Your Toddler to Enjoy at Home

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and low.

Exercises for Older Children

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 a leader. Make movements that require flexibility and exercises such as bending at the waist, stretching your hands overhead, standing on your tiptoes, do deep knee bends, running on the spot etc. This results in good coordination 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.

Toddler Nutrition and Diet

As young children move into their second year of life, they grow at a slower pace and sometimes their appetites lessen too. Toddlers have small stomachs and they only need small portions of food. You want to ensure that your toddler grows up with a healthy appetite but for the right foods, so you as parents are responsible for offering good food choices. To minimize the chances of any future eating disorders and weight problems, you should try to practice normal eating habits yourself and promote normal eating with the rest of your family. This sets the stage for a future normal eating pattern.

Daily eating routine

As we have said, toddlers have small stomachs, so a good routine to follow is to offer breakfast, lunch and supper with a healthy snack mid morning and another mid afternoon helping to provide the energy and nutrition your toddler needs during the day. Drinking milk or juice at other times can often affect their appetites so encourage drinking water instead in between times. In fact juice should be limited to one serving per day and then only pure natural, unsweetened juice mixed half and half with water. Fruit and whole grains are great for those snacks. A smoothie can include milk, fruit and fiber and your toddler will enjoy the taste. Everything your toddler eats should count towards his daily nutritional requirement. Offer a variety of different foods, flavors and textures for balance and to help your toddler enjoy new tastes. Toddlers can balance the amount of food eaten with exactly how much they need if they are not forced to overeat or finish all the food on the plate.

Milk intake

If your toddler is still breastfeeding then try to continue this as long as you both wish, as there are so many health benefits for both of you. If your toddler is formula fed, he can now change to cow’s milk and this can be from a cup. He will only need 16 to 24 ounces of milk a day as he is eating foods from all of the other food groups. The cow’s milk will need to be whole milk until at least the age of two.

Avoiding future eating disorders

While you decide what and when to feed, your toddler will decide whether or not to eat and how much he will eat. Remember he will eat when he is hungry and he will not starve himself. Toddlers have a natural ability to sense when they are hungry and when they are full, so if you insist on something being finished, you are actually overriding this natural ability – even leading to future eating disorders and weight problems.

Phobias – food jags and food neophobia

Apart from small stomachs and even inconsistent eating patterns (where the amount toddler eats can vary from day to day and is perfectly normal) your toddler may also have one or other of the following:

Food jags – this is where he decides to eat just one food item meal after meal – for example he just wants “French toast”. Don’t make an issue of it and he certainly won’t become malnourished from eating only French toast for a week. Continue to offer other foods and his insistence will pass with time.

Food neophobia – this is actually a fear of new foods and even previously good eaters can start to reject any new food. However, you need to avoid pushing them to try new foods as they will become more determined to resist. Just remove the food after a reasonable length of time but continue to offer the same food regularly and again in time this phase will pass. Some toddlers may require 5 to 10 exposures to a new food before they decide to try it.

Tips for establishing a good eating and mealtime routine

  1. A quiet activity or a rest before meals or snacks is a good idea as a tired or energized toddler may well not be interested in eating.
  2. Meals and snacks should be in a quiet and pleasant environment without distractions. Try to serve all meals at the table and not while he is walking around.
  3. Toddlers should sit at the table and eat with the family whenever possible so they can watch and copy others as well as enjoying the company.
  4. Give your toddler adequate time to eat his meals and snacks so that he is not rushed, to ensure good digestion.
  5. Make sure his foods are easy to handle (he should be able to explore food by touching but expect some mess) and always be around even at snack time as choking can easily occur.
  6. To help your toddler drink adequate amounts of water, always have this on the table at meal and snack times. A jug of chilled water in the fridge with slices of lemon or a sprig of mint tastes good while in summer you can freeze small pieces of chopped fruit in ice blocks and add to his water. Always take filled water bottles when you go out with your toddler so you do not have to resort to buying unsuitable liquids if he gets thirsty.
  7. Keep mealtimes relaxed and chat to your toddler and not just about food.

It is easier for your child to make good food choices if you offer him a healthy assortment of food from an early age. One way to encourage variety, add interest and expand the range of nutrients in your toddler’s diet is for your family to try foods from different cultures and with different ingredients.

Normal eating promotes a healthy mind and body and even fosters healthy relationships in all areas of life. Once your toddler has a say in the food he eats, he will then always be able to make a decision regarding food in the future and you will have been instrumental in this process. You will have given him yet another stepping stone towards independence