Experts around the world tell us that kids need 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, commonly abbreviated as MVPA, to ensure healthy growth and development. The guideline clearly tells us a quantity, and clarity is good.
But there’s an important question that it does not address: quality. If we force kids to run for 60 minutes, or jump up and down for 60 minutes, have we done our job?
In a 2015 paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a group of pediatric and orthopedic researchers led by Gregory Myers suggests that it may be misguided to place too much emphasis on quantity in physical activity.
By focusing on daily time duration in activity, we may be failing to address critical considerations such as enjoyment, skill development, and socialization. The same is true if we fixate on fitness measures such as strength, endurance, and body composition.
In short, establishing an active lifestyle requires more than physical fitness and a stoic work ethic. It needs fun, friendship, and fundamentals. Some say it also requires establishing habits.
Getting into the habit
Habits are automatic behaviors that people perform when they enter a familiar context where they are accustomed to performing that behavior and being rewarded for it. The habit is formed after repeating the behavior in that context or setting on many occasions and consistently experiencing a payoff. The context then becomes a “cue” that prompts the habitual behavioral “response”.
In their 2014 paper “Developing Physical Activity Habit in Schools for Active Lifestyle among Children and Adolescents”, researchers at Brock University have outlined how we might make physical activity a habitual behavior:
Literature shows that the time it takes to develop automaticity within physical activity varies for each individual, and for many it takes a significant number of repetitions (Lally et al., 2010). Schools can provide a framework for physically active habit development emphasizing and addressing the following factors: (a) goal setting, (b) enjoyment, (c) motivation, and (d) commitment.
In other words, if we want to make physical activity into a habit, having fun and frequently repeating the activity is likely far more important than its duration.
The importance of fun
Look at your own habits and motivations. Would you rather enjoy a fun physical activity seven days a week for 30 minutes each time? Or be forced to complete 60 minutes of joyless exercise on even three of those days? Fun and enjoyment are important rewards, and rewards help to create habits.
No one would argue against physical fitness for our kids, but we need to consider how to help them to embrace physical activity for the rest of their lives. We need quality programming, and the chance to make physical activity an enjoyable, habitual behaviour.