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3 reasons why kids need outdoor exercise

Created by Laura Scott, M.A. |

Cardiovascular activity supports a functioning immune system and is of great importance for keeping children healthy. Children need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, and working to achieve these recommendations can help children's bodies and mental health. Unfortunately this can be highly challenging during the Corona-19 pandemic, which has reduced opportunities and support to maintain healthy physically activity levels for children.

During the Corona-19 pandemic, a major issue I noticed as a parent was the lack of play and physical activity opportunities for children. Children are recommended to socially distance which spreads fear and sadly leaves many isolated, which is harmful to mental health. As precautions grew, children’s sports/swimming/dance/gymnastics classes and clubs were forced to close until further notice from local health authorities, which was on and off for months. As a health promoter who focuses on health prevention efforts through physical activity, the trend of depriving children of exercise, play, and socialization is troubling for several reasons.


Children should have the right to daily exercise and be encouraged to move freely for their physical and mental health.

Here are 3 reasons why:

1. Physical activity is beneficial for the mind and for boosting our immune system.

According to the WHO, children and adolescents 5-17 years of age need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. This means running, jogging, cycling, jumping, swimming; the heart-pumping activities that make your child’s face a little red and maybe even break a sweat! Children also need muscle-strengthening exercises at least 3 times per week (squats, push-ups, lunges, lifting objects, resistance bands, etc.).

Cardiovascular activity supports a functioning immune system by revving up the blood and lymph flow, which increasing the number of immune cells flowing in our bodies. However, it is arguable whether this was highlighted in the pandemic communications regarding what individuals can do to support mental and physical health. A review of exercise from da Silveira, Matheus Pelinski et al. (2021) found that persons who exercise have better functioning immune systems and are less likely to be hospitalized from Covid-19 complications, stating “the practice of physical activities strengthens the immune system, suggesting a benefit in the response to viral communicable diseases”. Contrarily, persons with obesity are more likely to suffer complications from Covid-19, as obesity has been identified as a risk factor for Covid-19. 

A study from Sallis et al. (2021) found that persons hospitalized with Covid-19 were more likely to be highly sedentary, and physically active persons were less likely to be hospitalized due to complications with Covid-19. People should be made aware of this to help influence their decision to be more active as a family.

When schools, parks, playgrounds, recreational clubs, swimming pools, youth clubs, and sports teams are forced to close, how are children to get adequate amounts of exercise? What are parents/caregivers to do? This issue was also raised by researchers da Silveira, Matheus Pelinski et al. (2021) stating, “remaining active at appropriate levels seems to be a challenge in a context of confinement and social isolation, which emphasizes the importance of developing training with recommendations adapted to the new routine of the population”. This will be different for every family as a one-sized solution will not fit everyone’s needs. Not everyone has a safe park to take the children to, a private backyard, active family members to encourage movement/time to take children out, or even internet connection for live-streaming fitness options. 

When searching for solutions and best practices, one can look to Slovenia, which rigorously encourages children and families to be physically active during Covid-19. Slovenia created a qualified task force to promote physical activity while in lockdown. Also a rare feat, Slovenia meets WHO physical activity guidelines and meets several policy recommendations for physical activity across all sectors, and they have a robust nationwide monitoring system for physical activity.

2. Children need free play for mental and social development. 

Free play is a fantastic opportunity for kids to make risk assessments, challenge themselves, use their imagination, develop creativity, and co-operate with others. It helps children develop problem-solving skills, practice teamwork, build social and leadership skills. Children need to play with other children to learn about themselves and others. A wonderful setting for free play is taking children outdoors in green spaces and playgrounds for physical activity. 

In the early times of the Covid-19 pandemic, playgrounds and even parks were closed in some areas. Health authorities communicated the new stringent rule of social distancing, which is a challenging concept for toddlers and small children to understand, which brings me to the next point.

3. Children need social contact with other children.

It is vital to our survival to be social for bonding and to have a supportive community. Studies show that persons with strong community supports may live longer. Children need to play and learn behaviour together, they also need to see each other’s facial expressions to gauge emotional reactions and responses during interactions. Nature-based play offers a wonderful setting for space and fresh air, creativity, and stress reduction. Nature-based play offers space to explore and the setting is ripe for children to use their imagination and creativity for play. In the summer months their skin can absorb vitamin D which supports a healthy, functioning immune system. 

The ongoing isolation, fear for the future, and reduced opportunities to be active are having a profound impact on mental health for children and families. Survey data from Canada collected in May 2020 reported family mental health deteriorating, increasing alcohol consumption, rising conflicts, and fear of safety in the home among other factors (Gadermann, Thomson. Richardson, et al., 2021).

The bottom line is children need physical activity and free play for their social, brain functioning and physical development. During the Corona-19 pandemic, physical activity was shown to support adolescents' mental health and mitigate infection fear (Wright, Williams & Veldhuijzen van Zanten, 2021). One study analyzed online surveys from 165 teenagers in the UK and identified physical activity as a strong predictor of better mental health when fear and infection stress was high. The researchers stated, “it is possible that physical activity is also used by adolescents as a way to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 Coronavirus and to have a sense of control over their health” (Wright, Williams & Veldhuijzen van Zanten, 2021, p.7).

Exercise can relieve acute depression and anxiety symptoms, boost biochemicals such as endorphins which elevate mood and feelings of relaxation, reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and increase mental mastery, feelings of self-control and accomplishment. It’s important for children to feel they have a sense of control and accomplishment in their daily lives, and finishing a workout instills a sense of control and supports self-esteem.


Take home messages:

  • Encourage your children or students to be consistently physically active.

  • Find recreational clubs with after school or weekend programs to get your children moving. Depending on the household income, some cities and recreation groups offer assistance with program costs. Local public health agencies should provide information on existing subsidy opportunities, and promote programs with coverage for low-income households. Local recreation facilities may offer low cost children's programming. 

  • Lead by example: show your children how important physical activity is by exercising. Modeling the healthy behaviour helps your children understand this is accepted and encouraged behaviour. 

Make a family goal: 
  • Commit to family workouts at least 3 evenings after dinner and during the day on weekends. Go outdoors together for a brisk walk, run, go on a  family bicycle ride or nature walk. 

  • Put on movement break songs for children, you can find many on YouTube and Spotify that are guaranteed to get the little ones moving.

  • Do a family-friendly workout-there are many free family and kids workouts and yoga classes online. Press play, make some space and exercise right in your living room. 

  • Green Blue Active will upload kids workouts to our Youtube channel soon!


da Silveira, Matheus Pelinski et al. “Physical exercise as a tool to help the immune system against COVID-19: an integrative review of the current literature.” Clinical and experimental medicine vol. 21,1 (2021): 15-28. doi:10.1007/s10238-020-00650-3
Gadermann AC, Thomson KC, Richardson CG, et al. Examining the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on family mental health in Canada: findings from a national cross-sectional study. BMJ Open 2021;11:e042871. Doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-042871
Jurak, Gregor, et al. “A COVID-19 Crisis in Child Physical FITNESS: Creating a Barometric Tool of Public Health Engagement for the Republic of Slovenia.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 5 Mar. 2021,
Sallis, Robert et al. “Physical inactivity is associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes: a study in 48 440 adult patients.” British journal of sports medicine, bjsports-2021-104080. 13 Apr. 2021, doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-104080
Wright LJ, Williams SE and Veldhuijzen van Zanten JJCS (2021). Physical Activity Protects Against the Negative Impact of Coronavirus Fear on Adolescent Mental Health and Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Front. Psychol. 12:580511. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.580511
WHO (2018), Physical activity factsheets for the 28 European Union member States of the WHO European region, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.