The Surprising Reasons Some Kids Avoid Physical Activity

School Age

As childhood obesity rates continue to climb, it won’t surprise you to learn that most kids aren’t getting enough physical activity. After all, kids today would rather socialize online than outdoors. But the reasons some kids miss out on exercise go beyond screen time (which is a big factor, of course). Stress, fear of embarrassment, personality type—all these things can keep a child from stretching his legs or flexing her muscles. The good news? There are ways you can help.

Just how much physical activity is recommended for kids?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, school-aged children and teens should aim for at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. And at least 3 times a week, they should be getting vigorous exercise—running, swimming or playing sports such as basketball or soccer.

Why kids shy away from exercise

While it’s easy to blame laziness or too much Fortnite, kids avoid physical activity for surprising reasons. Stressed-out children often feel tired and withdrawn, says Kathleen Hill, licensed therapist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. “We’re seeing a definite increase in kids dealing with chronic stress, anxiety and depression,” she says. “As adults we know those things affect our mood and our decisions to have fun and be active and playful.”

Certain personality types tend to be less active. Children who are shy and introverted often don’t feel comfortable running outside to play with the neighborhood kids, for example. A child who has been bullied will feel even less comfortable.

And of course, some kids simply aren’t into sports or outdoor play, or they go through phases in which they’re less interested. Creative forms of exercise—involving artwork or music, for instance—can help motivate these children. (Read on for specific ideas.)

Physical activity is just harder for some kids

“Parents don’t always notice, but some children are naturally clumsier than others,” says Hill. It’s not that clumsy kids don’t like sports, but they might feel embarrassed around more athletic friends—or frustrated when they have trouble mastering a skill.

Sensory differences can also slow kids down, especially younger ones or kids on the autism spectrum. A child who is sensitive to loud noises, for example, may not like echoing gymnasiums. Other kids may not enjoy the close contact of rough-and-tumble play. “Particularly with younger kids and with those kiddos who have extra sensory challenges, you need to be mindful of their limits and what might cause them to have a total meltdown,” she says.

Fun ways to get kids moving

For those kids who don’t like outdoor play or sports, Strong4Life exercise physiologist Kathleen Smith offers some outside-the-box ideas:

  • Choose your child’s favorite book and do a themed scavenger hunt. A Harry Potter lover, for example, could hunt for an owl or a broom on someone’s porch. Or you could take your child on a Pokémon walk.
  • Head out on a hike or nature walk.
  • Take the dog for a walk. If you don’t have a dog, consider volunteering to walk dogs at a local Humane Society.
  • A creative child may enjoy doing art outside. Get creative with sidewalk chalk— there are a lot of different tools that make sidewalk chalk fun for any age! You can also have your child collect materials outside to use in an art activity.
  • Do a yoga routine together (there are tons of free videos on YouTube).
  • Cue up a dance video, or just put on your favorite music and have a dance party.
  • Ask your child! Talk to your child about ways he may enjoy being active, then make a list and reference it when he needs ideas.

Respect your child’s feelings—but keep encouraging

Physical activity builds lifelong health and strong muscles and bones. So while it’s important to honor a child’s feelings, it’s also important for kids to be active. Don’t give up. Instead, use your child’s interests to think of creative ways to exercise. You just might be inspired to get moving, too.