The Importance of Exercise and Healthy Eating in Young Children

Author: Nailah Abdullah

When we think about what is required to have an average, healthy lifestyle, two main ideas come to mind: exercise and healthy eating. These two points are almost always necessary in order stay healthy and fit in adulthood, but what about during childhood? When most people were kids, it was easy for them to eat just about anything and not gain an ounce of weight. Halloween comes and goes, and children can put a whole pillowcase full of candy in their stomachs and feel okay, but just like in adulthood, is it important that children have regular exercise and stick to a healthy diet? The truth is, no matter how fast or strong a child’s metabolism is, healthy eating and exercise
is for everyone, and it can help determine beneficial factors to a child’s growth, such as bone development and avoiding lifelong weight issues.

Why is Healthy Food and Exercise Important
The first step towards a healthier lifestyle is figuring out what this lifestyle pertains and why components such as exercise and healthy eating are important. Most people understand physical activity as a way to lose weight, but for children exercise plays an important role in bone development (Eliakim & Beyth, 2003). Exercise builds tissue, and in children and adolescents, “bone mineral density reaches about 90% of its peak by the end of the second decade,” and increased physical activity during this time can help in preventing bone disorders, such as
osteoporosis, later in life (Eliakim & Beyth, 2003).

How about healthy eating? How is it important for children when they can seemingly eat almost anything? Just like an adult, children need proper nutrition and not just food to fill their stomachs. In fact, because children are still growing and developing, they require a lot more and
different nutritional requirements than that of adults, which are important for proper growth and development over time. Kelley says that allowing children to eat processed and fast foods instead
of proper nutrition like fruits, vegetables and other whole foods is “pushing them toward having lifelong weight issues.” Although children have a higher metabolic rate, it is still important that their caloric intake be nutritious (2020).” On top of this, children have underdeveloped immune systems in comparison to adults, which makes them more prone to infection. A healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, and other whole food help to boost children’s immune system instead of hindering it, like junk food, and other processed foods, do. A good start to a “healthy diet” is lots of water and protein to help with growth and cellular repair (Kelley 2020). In one study, it was found that exercise increased bone mineralization and strength and was found to be
maturity dependent. This suggests that the most detrimental time for exercise and healthy eating in children is around the premenarchal and early puberty time frame. This is when children have “higher levels of factors that enhance bone formation such as estrogen, testosterone, GH, and IGF-I.” These hormonal factors in children, when influenced by exercise, can help make bones stronger and respond better to weight bearing exercise. (Kelley 2020).

Preventing Childhood Overweight and Obesity
One of the most influential people in a child’s life is their parents. Children typically see their parents every day, eating with them for at least one meal a day. In a review done by Pocock et. al, it was found that there were various external influences that parents said they were
competing with, such as perceived media, marketing influences and peer pressure, that act as barriers to ‘healthy’ weight-related behaviors (2009). It is important that parents do their best in properly educating their children on why it is important to both eat healthily and exercise, so to avoid overweight and obesity in their children. The next major influencer could be someone such as an older sibling or babysitter. Parents could help here, as well, by providing these older siblings
or babysitters with proper nutrition plans (a menu, perhaps) and activities that could be done when the parent is not home. Children may see siblings or outside influences as a role model, and proper
education on a healthy lifestyle, even if it is small, could potentially provide them with lifelong benefits. The last major influencer we typically see in a child’s every day life is a child’s teacher. This is one of the most important influencers in a child’s life. They see a child for hours on end, every day, 5-days a week. Promoting participation in physical activity, both in and out of school, that is enjoyable for a child is a great way to help in leading them towards a healthy lifestyle (Trost
& Loprinzi, 2008).

Maintaining Changes in Health Behaviors
Okay, so I get my child to eat healthily for a day and play outside once. How do I maintain these healthy habits? Advocate for health education in schools, have consistent health education a home, and promote exercise both in and out of the home. In a study conducted by Coates, Jeffery, and Slinkard, it was found that school programs developed using specific techniques can be effective in maintaining essential behavior changes both at school and at home (1981). “Changing
children’s health habits may be a key element in promoting widespread adoption of a healthier lifestyle that could lead to reduction of cardiovascular risk behavior and disease events in the
population. (Coastes, Jeffery & Slinkard, 1981).”
If you cannot implement programs within your child’s school, one way you can get started is by implementing them within your own home. Increase your children’s consumption of complex carbohydrates and decrease their consumption of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Increase the amount of physical activity you and your children are doing. Lastly, try and generalize these changes to other family members (Coastes, Jeffery & Slinkard, 1981).

Exercise and healthy eating are important for everyone, especially children. Having the proper education for both parents and their children, we can prevent having overweight and obesity in young children, as well as avoid lifelong weight issues. Providing your children with a good breakfast is a great way to start; boiled eggs, low-sugar & high-protein cereal, fruit, etc. (Segal and Robinson, 2020). Provide your children with a reward for eating their fruits and vegetables when
they are younger so that they associate healthy foods with reward and good feelings. It is important to make sure children exercise for at least 60-minutes a day. Trost and Loprinzi recommend advocating for school programs that meet the physical activity needs of youth, and to “use active learning strategies and emphasize enjoyable participation in physical education class (2008).”


Pocock, M., Trivedi, D., Wills, W., Bunn, F., & Magnusson, J. (2009, September 23). Parental perceptions regarding healthy behaviours for preventing overweight and obesity in young children: A systematic review of qualitative studies.

Coates, T. J., Jeffery, R. W., & Slinkard, L. A. (1981). Heart healthy eating and exercise: Introducing and maintaining changes in health behaviors. American Journal of Public Health, 71(1), 15-23. doi:10.2105/ajph.71.1.15

Kelley, J. (2020, July 21). The Importance of Healthy Eating in Children.

Trost, S. G., & Loprinzi, P. D. (2008). Exercise—Promoting healthy lifestyles in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Lipidology, 2(3), 162-168. doi:10.1016/j.jacl.2008.03.001

Eliakim, A., & Beyth, Y. (2003). Exercise training, menstrual irregularities and bone development in children and adolescents. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 16(4), 201-206. doi:10.1016/s1083-3188(03)00122-0

Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2020, October). Healthy Food for Kids.