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Physical Activity for Children : A Nutrition Guidance

Physical activity is essential for healthy growth and development. Children naturally move and physically active according to their age, physical and emotional development. Children also need to be physically active to achieve optimal growth as the physical activity will balancing the energy input from the food and help the nutrients to be optimally utilized by the body. Physical activity give many benefits for children’s health, includes strong bones and muscles, healthy heart, lungs and blood vessels, and prevent obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and malignancies later in life. Physical activities improved children’s coordination, balance, posture and flexibility, social interaction and cognitive development. Physical activities also great for helping children to be happy and confidence, relaxed and sleep well, concentrate better at school, share, take turns, cooperate, get along with others and make friends easily. Early physical activities habits will stay into adulthood.

Guidelines on children physical activity by age

Children under two years old should have at least 60 minutes of fun and moderate intensity physical activity daily and the older children at least three hours daily, with activity spread across the day. Children can do it in small blocks of time throughout the day.

Children less than 1 year old should have some physical activity such as floor play, sit, reach and squeeze toys, rolling and crawling several times each day. We can stimulate the children by putting interesting toys in front of them, or play along with them. Babies need at least 30 minutes of tummy time in adult supervision. Give attention and help babies to hold their head and neck if necessary. Always make sure the environment for playing is secure.

Children aged more than 1 years old that can already walk have more variation of physical activity such as the more energetic play like jumping, climbing, running or twirling. We can add more stimulation with music so children can move around according to the rhythm. Teach the children to play ball by catch, throw and kicking. Push and pull plays like train games will help children in understanding about space awareness.

Children aged 5–18 years should have minimum one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily and should include activities that strengthen muscles and bones at least three days a week. Moderate physical activities are about as intense as a quick walk that gets children gently huffing and puffing, while vigorous physical activity gets children huffing and puffing a lot, also sweating such as running games of riding a bike fast. Activities that make muscles work more than normal and put extra forces on bones like jumping, running, climbing and lifting will strengthen muscles and bones. Moderate and vigorous physical activities often help to build muscles and bones.

Types of Physical activity for children

Physical activity isn’t necessarily ‘exercise’.

Your child doesn’t have to play an organised sport or do push-ups to benefit from moving. Opportunities for free outdoor physical activity are just as valuable. It does help, though, if you make daily plans for when and where your child can be active.

Simple physical activities can include:

• going for walks and walking or riding bicycle to child care, school or a friend’s house

• spending time in places like playgrounds

• playing near your home or at the homes of friends or family, or in parklands or shallow water at the beach or a river

• playing ‘chasey’, ‘keepings off’, one-on-one soccer, basketball, touch football, or netball in the backyard or park

• dancing and skipping around your home, jumping in puddles, flying kites and other activities when it’s rain or wet outside

The Relationship between Physical Activity and Nutrition

The amount of physical activities will affect nutritional status and overall health. In turn, diet and nutritional status can influence physical fitness. Nutrients act as the fuel for physical activity. The right combination of the energy-yielding nutrients such as carbohydrate, fat and protein (along with adequate micronutrients and water) will enhance the body performance. Less physical activity increases risk of overweight and obesity. In children, nutrients also needed for growth and development.

Linear growth, including bone elongation and muscle mass accretion, occurs rapidly during both childhood and adolescence. Rapid growth relies on adequate supply of the building blocks required to develop these tiss

ues as well as nutrients that regulate and support these processes.

Calories and protein fuel this rapid linear growth. Protein is a major structural component muscle tissue, which grows at an unparalleled rate. Protein must be present in both sufficient quantity and of high quality to provide the essential amino acids. High quality protein sources include animal (dairy, egg, meat, poultry), and some plant proteins (e.g., soy). Other plant protein sources, like peas or nuts, need to be consumed with complementary protein to provide all essential amino acids.

Energy (calories) from food is also required to build body tissues. As with protein, calorie needs relative to body weight are much higher during childhood and adolescence than in adulthood. Insufficient calories can delay growth spurts and lead to stunting.

Blood volume increases during growth to transport nutrients to fuel growing tissues. As a major component of blood and muscle tissue, adequate intake of iron during growth is essential. Increases in blood volume require iron to build the haemoglobin molecule necessary to carry oxygen in the blood. Additionally, iron supports the myoglobin component of growing muscle. Higher losses of iron due to menstruation translates into teen girls needing more than twice the amount of iron than boys.

Calcium is the main component of the skeleton, while vitamin D ensures calcium reaches the growing bones. Vit D helps the body utilize calcium by increasing absorption from food and helping deposit calcium into the bones. Either too little or too much vitamin D can lead to bone problems in young children and increased risk of fractures. Even though some vitamin D is made on skin exposed to sunlight, it is still an essential component of the diet.

Zinc is an important enabler in the body, acting as a catalyst for dozens of reactions, especially those metabolic processes associated with growth and sexual maturation. As a result, zinc deficiency affects growth. It is also associated with mortality due to diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria among young children. Zinc deficiency primarily in developing countries where zinc-rich animal protein foods are limited or not available while dietary compounds that inhibit zinc absorption, such as phytate, are common. Even minor deficiencies are of consequence on growth and development. Zinc also has a role in cognitive function because it is essential for growth of the nervous system, including formation of neurons and synapses that allow neurons to communicate with each other. Deficiency impairs signal transmission throughout the nervous system, which impacts a variety of functions including motor skills, attention, and learning.

Our nerves rely on the myelin sheath to enable nerve signals to travel rapidly across the neuron. Iron has a role in developing this myelin sheath as well as in synthesizing

neurotransmitters. Iron-deficiency is associated with fatigue and with impaired immunity, so the role of iron in cognition may be a combination of direct and indirect factors.

Fatty acids are a primary component of every cell membrane in the body. It is possible that DHA plays a role in cognitive development and performance, because brain cells are enriched in a specific long-chain omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). To date, the role of DHA supplementation is undetermined with respect to improving learning and memory.

Vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate and choline have possible roles in nerve cell myelination, neurotransmitter synthesis, and regulation of gene expression in the central nervous system. Vitamin A is essential for the transduction of light into neural signals in the eye.

Growth and development is a complex process requiring nutrients used as building blocks for growing tissues, as well as nutrients that regulate intricate development processes. It can be challenging to balance nutrient needs while keeping calorie intakes within a healthy range to prevent weight gain. Certain key nutrients like protein, minerals (iron, iodine, zinc, and calcium), vitamins, and long-chain omega-3 fats are among those of key importance during this life stage. Developing lifelong dietary preferences for nutrient rich sources of these critical nutrients, will help lead to lifelong health. Exposing children to a variety of foods in early life, makes it easier for children to enjoy a health-promoting diet throughout their life.


Author is a lecture at Department of Nutrition Faculty of Medicine Universitas Indonesia RS Cipto Mangunkusumo.

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