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Fitness And Nutrition

  • What are the nutrition and physical activity recommendations for children?
  • How can I make sure my child gets enough exercise?
  • How can I help my child develop healthy eating habits?

Young children’s brains and bodies are growing rapidly, and proper nutrition and physical activity are critical for healthy development. Making sure your child eats a healthy diet, gets enough physical activity, and visits a healthcare provider for regular check-ups are important ingredients for a great start in life.

Why It Matters

Compared to the past, increased use of electronic devices and digital on-screen entertainment has meant less physical activity for many children. This fact combined with increased consumption of sugary drinks, high-fat snacks, and processed, pre-packaged foods is leading to higher rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, and other related health problems.

Encouraging good habits early and teaching children the difference between healthy and unhealthy choices can help them avoid these kinds of diseases and set them on a path to a long, healthy life.

According to the Center for Disease Control, obesity affects about 15 million children across the U.S., and thousands more children, while not technically obese, are unhealthily overweight. As with many other health challenges, obesity rates are higher among Black and Hispanic children than in white children.

Studies have shown that 80% of overweight children become obese adults, and obesity is linked to a range of major health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer.

Nutrition Recommendations

A well-balanced diet is essential for children’s overall well-being. Nutrition impacts everything from rates of growth, to brain function and development, mental health, energy levels, skin, and hormones.

Signs a child is not getting adequate nutrition may include:

  • Being overweight or underweight
  • Irregular bowel movements (constipation, diarrhea)
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Dental problems (cavities, bleeding gums)
  • Frequent illness (colds and other viruses) 
  • Delayed growth 
  • Problems at school (difficulty concentrating, fatigue, hyperactivity, behavior problems) 
  • Moodiness, depression or anxiety

The following nutrition recommendations from the Mayo Clinic are based on the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Recommended amounts will vary depending on a child’s height and weight and how physically active they are.

What to Avoid

Added sugars like brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, honey, syrup, and others. Choose snacks and drinks with no or minimal added sugars. Avoid soda or sports and energy drinks. Choose water over fruit juice.

The American Heart Association recommends that children and adolescents eat no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

For reference, a half can of soda contains about 5 teaspoons of added sugar. 

  • Saturated and trans fats: Limit fats from animal sources, such as red meat, bacon, butter, cheese, or cream. Avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil. Instead go for healthier fats like nuts, avocados, fish, vegetable or olive oil. 
  • Sodium: Encourage snacking on fruits and vegetables instead of salty snacks, like potato chips or corn chips. Choose low-salt versions.

Guidelines for Physical Activity
Regular physical activity not only helps children grow and develop their physical strength, but exercise is also linked to mental health and helps children cope better with stress and anxiety. In addition, getting outdoors for a game of catch, a family hike or participating in organized sports can help children build positive relationships and social connections.

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day for children and adolescents ages 6 through 17.  The following guidelines are from “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition, available on

The 60 minutes or more of daily of physical activity should include the following: 

Type of activity   Examples How often


(activity that makes the heart and lungs work harder)



Jumping rope




Most of the 60+ minutes every day should be either moderate or vigorous aerobic activity. 


(activities that involve bearing or lifting weight)

Climbing (playground structures, monkey bars)


Push ups


At least 3 days a week, as part of their daily 60+ minutes of physical activity 


(activities that involve running, jumping or other type of weight impact)


Jumping rope

Soccer or basketball 


At least 3 days a week, as part of their daily 60+ minutes of physical activity 

Children with health conditions or disabilities should not be excluded from sports and other physical activities. There are ways to adapt fitness exercises so that everyone can be involved.   Communicate with your child’s physician to learn what types of activities are safe, and work with  school administrators and teachers to ensure that your child is able to participate to the maximum possible.

Check In:

Use the following checklist to reflect on your child’s nutrition and physical activity. Check the ones that you already do. Put a star next to the ones you would like to start or do more of. 


  • Eats fruits and vegetables every day
  • Eats whole grains (bread, rice, oatmeal) every day
  • Eats three meals a day + healthy snacks
  • Eats lean meats and poultry
  • Limits candy, cookies/sweets, and other foods with added sugar and saturated fats
  • Drinks 6-8 cups of water a day

Physical Activity

  • Participates in at least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise a day
  • Does aerobic activity at least 3 times a week (Ex. hiking, running, soccer, basketball,  jumping rope, dancing, biking)
  • Does muscle-strengthening exercises at least 3 times a week (Ex. climbing structures, monkey bars, push ups, cycling, hill climbing)
  • Does bone-strengthening exercises at least 3 times a week (Ex. hopping, skipping, jumping, basketball, tennis, soccer)
  • Avoids sitting/lying around for long periods

Contact & Collaborate:

  • If you need food assistance, call the USDA’s national hunger hotline.
  • Your child’s school can help connect you with food assistance or other resources in your local community. Call the school counselor or main office to find out.
  • Your healthcare provider, family physician, or school nurse can provide helpful additional  resources and information related to nutrition or other concerns about your child’s diet, weight, or overall health.
  • Local community organizations, such as the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club also offer healthy meals and snacks, sports, and other healthy activities after school, when parents are working
  • Find out about after school sports and activity offerings at your child’s school. Allow them to choose something to sign up for.

Continue Learning:

Here are more resources about children’s physical fitness and nutrition. 

American Diabetes Association  Resources for Parents

Sunny Side Up (podcast):  A resource for parents who want information on nutrition for their kids at all ages.

Functional Nutrition for Kids (podcast):  Episodes that help parents feed their children with disabilities or labels.

Including All Children:  Health for Kids with Disabilities:  An article that lists some possible barriers to physical activity and ways of addressing those for children with certain disabilities.

Eating Well and Feeling Good (Messy Bun Podcast)

Parent Tips for Healthier Food Choices:

MyPlate Mobile App:  An app to help you meet your healthy eating goals.

Scavenger Hunt to do on MyPlate Mobile App:

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