Opinion: Children need to do at least one hour of physical activity a day to get their hearts and lungs working and that also applies over the Christmas period

We finally have a few days off work and the kids are off school for two weeks. It’s cold and wet outside and it’s warm and inviting in the living room by the fire. When we stick a good movie on, the kids are still and quiet. That’s what I call Christmas bliss.

Don’t get me wrong: this accurately describes the scene in my own living room as the dark nights close in around Christmas. But the Christmas guilt is also there: too much sitting down, too much food, energy levels start to drop and we start to feel a little like a half-deflated balloon. 

Why is this? It’s because we as human beings are designed to move. If we don’t move enough, we don’t feel our best. Our energy levels drop, our waistlines increase and we open ourselves up long term to a host of chronic illnesses. 

"Build plenty of physical activity opportunities into the day for both the grown ups and the kids"

Every day, children need to do at least one hour of physical activity that gets their hearts and lungs working and sees them break a sweat. It can be a few minutes here and there throughout the day or in one big block. Adults need at least half an hour of this same type of activity - and the more we can do beyond this target the better. We also need to try to minimise the amount of time we spend sitting still so always try to break up prolonged periods of sitting still as often as you can.

So what to do over Christmas with the tin of Roses temptingly close to hand? I certainly enjoy the family movie night and don’t want to lose that, so the trick is to get the balance right. Build plenty of physical activity opportunities into the day for both the grown ups and the kids, and then everyone can relax and enjoy the time in front of the fire (and the Roses) without that Christmas guilt ruining the occasion. Here's a four-step guide which might help.

The active present

The first big thing is to make sure Santa or the present giver brings some sort of active present. Kids and young people love the new shiny stuff that Christmas brings and will drag parents up and out of the house to make sure that they get to use them, which exactly what we need. It doesn’t have to be the obvious big spend of a new bike or a scooter. It could be a new pair of runners, a new bike helmet, a bell or ribbons to go on the end of the bike handle bars, a new ball or an over door small basketball hoop. There are lots of small presents that could do just the trick that we want. And please please don’t even go there with an electric scooter - unless the child needs the physical assistance of an electric scooter, they should be doing it the old fashioned way and getting some physical activity!

The console wars

Gaming consoles can be the worst enemy of physical activity and health for your child: so much fun, so addictive and so sedentary. For so many parents it is a huge battle to try get our kids off these consoles. It’s what they want to do and we want them to enjoy Christmas so we have to find some sort of compromise. My instinct is to limit the time they have with the console and set it up so that they have to earn the time on the console. For example, a maximum of one hour of gaming a day, but they need to earn that hour by doing at least an hour of good hard physical activity first. It’s all the better if you can encourage them to do active gaming (on the Wii, for example) instead of the sitting-on-a-seat-twiddling-your-thumbs version. What we really need to try to do is make the console work for us and our children's health rather that against it.

Unplug the kids

The indoor Olympics

When it’s wet and cold and miserable outside, there are still plenty of opportunities to move and to help kids develop some of the really important fundamental movement skills they need to take part in so many physical activities. For younger kids up to about the age of six, who can’t do too much damage (editor’s note: please note that this is the author’s opinion!), this could be throwing and catching a beanbag in the living room, or trying to kick a sponge ball through a doorway. This will do a lot to help them progress their fundamental movement skill abilities during the dark months when maybe you aren’t so keen to let them outside. This won’t work with the slightly older kids who would potentially destroy your house with the beanbag and sponge ball, but there are options such as kids HIIT exercise or Dance off videos from YouTube. If you are lucky enough to have street lighting outside, do encourage them to go out and play, throw or kick a ball around. It will do wonders for them and it’s even better if you join them yourself.

Damage out of sight

Change your habits

Probably the most important thing we can do as parents is to change our own psyche. How many times have we driven numerous times around a car park with kids in the car, to find the closest possible spot that we can to the shop, cinema, playground or wherever it is that we’re going? In doing this, we are in effect missing an opportunity for physical activity out of our child’s (and our own) day. Try to make it a rule that you park as far as you feasibly can away from your destination. Try purposely to add physical activity through this extra walking time. When it comes to being active, literally every step counts. We have to start to think and act differently by walking, taking the stairs and parking further away. We need physical activity seeking to become part of our everyday habits, so that we can build more physical activity into our own and our children’s behaviours. 

"Try to make it a rule that you park as far as you feasibly can away from your destination"

As parents we need to change our own behaviours, and we need to lead by example. It isn’t just about getting the kids to get out and move more over the holidays – it’s about all of us getting out and moving more over the holidays. We need to keep this up so it becomes a normal everyday part of life for all the family. You’ll thank yourself in your old age - and so will your kids.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ