- What are the physical fitness recommendations for middle schoolers?
- How can I help my child get started with physical activity and exercise?
- What are the nutrition recommendations for middle schoolers?
- How can I help my child develop healthy eating habits ?
Parents and caregivers want their children to feel their best. This often means having healthy habits in place for fitness and good nutrition. However, the Center for Disease Control states that about 20% of middle schoolers in the US are obese and the trend shows that children are becoming heavier at a younger age. Of this age group, Hispanic and Black adolescents are at an even higher risk. In addition, it has been shown that 80% of overweight children become obese adults. Because children learn many of their habits from their families at an early age, parent and family support can go a long way in setting a middle schooler up for success in the areas of exercise and diet.
Physical fitness is one of the best ways to feel good, support mental health and stay well. However, 1 out of every 10 middle schoolers does not get enough exercise. Part of this is due to spending more time on screens and less time outdoors than generations in the past. Other factors include, less physical activity during school breaks and more time sitting down to study than they did when they were younger.
A typical middle schooler should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day. Ideally, this would include aerobic (like running, dancing, skateboarding and mountain biking), bone-strengthening and muscle building activities. Since kids at this age really want to spend a lot of time with friends, finding an activity they can do together or with a team may help to foster this habit.
Children with health conditions or disabilities should not be excluded from sports and other physical activity. There are ways to adapt fitness exercises so that everyone can be involved. It will be important to work with the school physical education teacher as well as a primary health care provider to find out what is and is not safe for each child.
Nutrition and Hydration
A well balanced diet and drinking enough water also contribute greatly to a child’s well-being. Sometimes the only options of interest to middle schoolers are sugary drinks and fast food. Some believe that children at this age can eat whatever they want because they are young and their bodies will burn it off. While this might be the case for some, the CDC says that over 20% of middle schoolers are considered obese. Not only that, but they are at an age where nourishment is vital to their body and brain development, establishing good eating habits at this stage is important. Like exercise, what a child decides to eat can also affect their mental health, energy levels, skin, and hormones.
The average calorie intake for middle schoolers is about 2,000 for girls and 2,200 for boys. This may vary depending on how active they are and their height and weight. Ideally, these calories come from whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean and high-quality protein, good dairy products, nuts and seeds. Below is a chart from the Mayo Clinic that lists what children ages 9-13 should take in daily.
|For girls||For boys|
(eggs, fish, good quality meats, beans)
|4-6 ounces||5-6.5 ounces|
(apples, bananas, berries, kiwi, mango, etc)
|1.5-2 cups||1.5-2 cups|
(green beans, sweet potato, broccoli, zucchini, lettuce, cauliflower, etc)
|1.5-3 cups||1.5-3 cups|
(rice, quinoa, etc)
|5-7 ounces||5-9 ounces|
(yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, milk, etc)
|3 cups||3 cups|
In addition to nutrients, children need to stay hydrated so that their digestion can work properly. This means they should consume between 2-3 quarts of water per day.
Kids go through a lot of changes during the middle school years, some of which are hormonal. This can lead to increased sweating, body odor and skin issues. It is a good time for them to learn some of the basics of self-care and good hygiene so they can feel clean and confident at school and with their friends.
The foundation for good hygiene is clean clothes and a clean body. This includes showering regularly, brushing and flossing every day, wearing deodorant when needed and making sure clothes and sheets are washed on a regular basis. For children who also play sports, they should clean their uniforms after practice and games/meets.
Why it Matters
As mentioned above, lack of exercise and poor nutrition can result in health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which can create other health problems. They can also lead to or exacerbate mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Finding ways to get your child moving and also feeding them nutritious foods will go a long way in establishing healthy habits and well-being.
Treats and processed foods should be saved for special occasions and only eaten in moderation. If possible, also have your child avoid sugary drinks even after they have done sports or vigorous exercise. The most important and useful liquid they can consume is water. Two to three quarts of water per day is ideal.
Signs that your child may have a poor diet include, but are not limited to:
- Being overweight or underweight
- Irregular or poor elimination (bowel movements)
- Excessive tiredness
- Poor growth
- Feelings of lethargy, moodiness, depression or anxiety
Review the list of ways your child can take care of themself. Check the ones that they already do and put a star next to the ones you would like to encourage them to start or do more of.
- Participates in at least one hour of vigorous exercise a day
- Does aerobic activity at least 3 times a week (Ex. hiking, running, swimming, biking, skiing)
- Does muscle-strengthening exercises at least 3 times a week (Ex. lifting weights, climbing stairs, push ups, cycling, hill walking)
- Does bone-strengthening exercises at least 3 times a week (Ex. gymnastics, volleyball, tennis, hopping/skipping/jumping)
- Takes breaks to move during long periods of sitting
- Avoids too much sitting/lying around
- Spreads out activity during the day
- Eats fruits and vegetables every day
- Easts whole grains
- Has enough calories per day
- Eats three meals a day + healthy snacks
- Eats lean meats and poultry
- Drinks 2-3 quarts of water a day
- Showers/bathes everyday or every other day
- Washes hair everyday or every other day
- Wears clean socks and underwear everyday
- Washes sports/exercise clothes regularly
- Changes bed sheets once a week
- Brushes teeth twice a day and floss once a day
- Uses deodorant or antiperspirant as needed
Connect & Communicate:
You can start a conversation with your child by reviewing the checklist above and highlighting and congratulating them on the things you notice they are already doing. Before telling them what you feel they should do next, ask them how they feel physically and mentally and if there are some things they want to try.
It is important to remember that developing a new habit takes time, so having them choose 1 or 2 things they want to improve is enough. Once those have become established habits, encourage them to select more. In addition to helping them develop healthy exercise habits, find ways to stay fit as a family.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, don’t make that the topic of conversation. Instead, focus on the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. Connect exercise and nutrition to health and well-being, not weight, as this could potentially lead to unhealthy habits and even eating disorders. You can also approach them by sharing the challenges and successes you or another family member has had in choosing a healthier lifestyle.
In addition to talking to your child about healthy lifestyles, there are ways to motivate kids to be active and to eat well. Read through the ideas and think about which ones may be best suited for you, your tween and your family.
- Be a role model by exercising, eating well and talking about how and why your family values fitness and nutrition.
- Exercise together as a family or do an activity that your teen enjoys.
- Have equipment out in the house, garage or yard that encourages physical activity.
- Spend time in community spaces that have fields and courts to play in.
- Remind them that all physical fitness counts and help them find one they enjoy.
- If they prefer to stay home, help time find online classes or videos.
- Involve your child in planning meals, buying food and helping to prepare meals. GIve them some choice and autonomy on what healthy foods they choose.
- Put fruits and vegetables out on the counter instead of junk food.
Here are some other activities you can do to increase your child’s awareness around fitness and nutrition and to help them become more active and healthy.
- Build exercise into some of their screen time. For example, do sit ups or push ups during a commercial.
- Help them find friends who enjoy the same activities and get them to organize regular training or practice.
- Find healthy recipes online and have your child read through them, get the ingredients and cook for the family.
- Allow each member of the family decide on a physical activity they want to do each week and the whole family participates.
Use lessons related to school. These activities are designed for the classroom but can easily be adapted to the home environment: https://www.hmhco.com/blog/nutrition-activities-elementary-middle-school-students
Contact & Collaborate:
You can work with your school to find sports or extracurricular activities that your child may enjoy. The school counselor or nurse may also have some resources to help with nutrition and exercise. Some middle schoolers may overdo it because of the pressure to perform. For example, if they are involved in wrestling, dance or gymnastics, there may be a weight they need to maintain. This may cause them to push themselves too far, so make sure that you are in communication with coaches and doctors to make sure what your child is doing is safe.
If you are unsure or concerned about your child’s health, weight or diet, contact their primary care doctor. They may be able to refer you to a dietician, help create a fitness plan or provide additional resources and support.
- Find out what your child’s school does for nutrition and fitness education and support that at home.
- Find classes at the local YMCA, church, Boys and Girls club or community center
- Encourage them to do sports or activities at school that require movement. They could be competitive or something like running
Here are more resources about teens and physical fitness and nutrition.
Sunny Side Up (podcast): A resource for parents who want information on nutrition for their kids at all ages.
Child Nutrition Expert Jill Castle: Blog posts and articles about teen nutrition from an expert in the field.
The Nourished Child (Podcast): The Toll of Teen Obesity:
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: