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Physical activity: Guidelines for children and teens

kids running in the field  

Regular physical activity has a range of benefits for your child's physical and mental health. But sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what type of exercise is best and how much activity should be part of your child’s routine every week.

How much exercise does my child need?

The guidelines for physical activity largely depend on a child’s age. The recommendations for children younger than18 years old are contained in the two sets of guidelines from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP):

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years

The table below summarizes the amount and types of activity that are suitable during the first few years of your child’s life.

Age Amount of activity Examples
Under 12 months Supervised floor-based play several times a day

Tum​my time

Reaching and grasping

Pushing and pulling


Age 1 to 4 180 minutes (3 hours) of physical activity throughout the day in​ different settings and from a range of activities

Climbing stairs

Playing outside

Exploring nature



Dancing to music

By age 5 60 minutes of energetic play every day




Bike riding

The older your child, the more they need energizing activity. Indeed, more daily physical activity provides even greater benefits.

Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth (age 5 to 17 years)

These guidelines cover all types of movement as well as rest and relaxation throughout the day, including nighttime. A 24-hour day is divided into the four sections:

Activity Guidelines
  • ​At least 60 minutes (1 hour) of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity every day.
  • Vigorous intensity and bone and muscle strengthening activity at least three days a week
  • Several hours of structured and unstructured light intensity activities such as playing, walking to or from school, doing chores
  • Children aged 5 to 13: 9 to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep
  • Teens aged 14 to 17: 8 to 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep
  • ​No more than 2 hours of recreational screen time a day

How can I tell if my child’s activities are moderate or vigorous intensity?

Vigorous-intensity activities make children sweat and feel “out of breath”, leaving them able to speak only a few words between breaths. Examples include hip-hop dancing and running, biking or swimming at a fast pace.

Moderate-intensity activities also make children sweat and breathe a little harder, but they can still talk while they move their bodies. Examples include rollerblading, riding a bike around the neighbourhood after school and moderate level yoga.

What types of activities strengthen muscles and bones?

Activities that strengthen muscles and bones force the body to bear weight. They include going for a hike with family or friends, jumping rope, playing tennis or basketball or doing weight training with body weight or hand-held weights.

Cycling and swimming are good for building muscles and improving heart health, but they are not as effective as other activities for building strong bones. This is because the bones are not required to bear as much weight while the body is in a seated position or in water.

How can I encourage my child to be more active?

Often there is a gap between what we know we should do and actually doing it. As a parent, you may find it difficult to get your child to increase their daily physical activity, especially if they are not used to it, are carrying extra weight, are out of shape or are feeling down. However, there are a number of tips that can help.

Create a regular routine from the early years onwards

It is important to instil exercise as a regular part of your child’s life right from the beginning. If being active is a routine part of their daily lives, your child will be more likely to get up and get moving when it might be the most difficult to find the motivation, and ironically, when physical activity would be most helpful.

Be a healthy role model

Be a good role model. Not only will this benefit your family by showing them how you can fit daily physical activity into your life in various ways, but it benefits you as well. In addition, regular physical activity will create more opportunities for you to be active and have fun with your children.

Set limits on screen time

Set limits on your child’s recreational screen time (watching TV, playing video games, using social media with friends). Children aged two and over should have no more than one to two hours of recreational screen time a day. Children under age two should not have any screen time.

Make sure your child is safe

Consider encouraging your child to walk to school with other nearby children by forming a walking club with neighbours. Also make sure that your child or teen is wearing protective equipment for activities such as cycling, skating, skateboarding, soccer and other physical activities.

Choose an activity your child enjoys

If your child does not have a routine to fall back on, you can set them up by helping them find something that they really enjoy doing and letting them take gradual steps from there. Getting outside, going for a swim or walking, running or bike riding with friends or family are all great ways to start them off. Other options are doing a yoga class (many are available online to follow at home), playing soccer and dancing.

Even if your child is part of an organized sport a few times a week, encourage them to move on their off days by walking or cycling to a friend’s house, raking leaves, skipping rope or playing in a neighbourhood park.

A good idea when choosing an activity is for you and your child to consider:

  • your child’s interests
  • the availability and affordability of options where you live.

Your child’s interests

Not every child has plans to be the team captain or star player. If your child prefers to do physical activity on their own, they may be interested in running, biking or swimming. If they enjoy being in a team environment where they can make new friends and be part of a community, then team-based activities such as basketball or soccer might be a better option.

Availability and affordability of options

The costs of some physical activities can quickly add up when you take account of uniforms, equipment, lessons and travel to and from training or competitions. When considering the options for your child, check what public programs are available through your city’s or town’s recreation centres and what your child may be able to do through school. Often these options are more affordable.

How to set your child up with a positive attitude towards physical activity

There is always a certain amount of fear and discomfort when someone tries something new. It helps to remind your child that they do not need to be the best or fastest but instead should do their best to enjoy and learn from their chosen activity.

If your child tries an activity and does not like it, there is little point in forcing them to continue. A child can only gain the benefits of a physical activity if they like it enough to do it regularly. One option is to think about ways that might make the activity more enjoyable, for instance by doing it with a friend. If that does not work, another option is to encourage your child to continue with the activity until you agree together on another one that they can start. It is also a good idea to encourage your child to try different activities during the week to have some variety and use their body in different ways.

Key points

  • Regular physical activity has a number of benefits for children, including improved movement skills, stronger bones and greater concentration at school.
  • By age five, children should have at least 60 minutes of energetic play every day.
  • Children and youth age five to 17 should do 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity every day. They should do activities to strengthen their muscles and bones at least three times a week.
  • Helpful activities include rollerblading, gymnastics, soccer, hockey and cross-country running.

Sharon Alexander, BSc, BEd, MEd​

Suneeta Monga, MD, FRCPC​​​