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A lot of parents think their kids get enough exercise by just being kids. But more than 50 percent of children are not active enough for optimal growth and development, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. This has contributed to an alarming rise in childhood obesity. It has also caused more parents to examine just how active their kids really are, and what they can do to improve their little ones’ fitness habits.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that children spend at least 60 minutes per day (and ideally much more) doing some form of physical activity. You may think that the standard PE class takes care of this, but thanks to budget constraints and curriculum pressures, many schools are cutting back on physical education or eliminating it altogether. So that leaves you, the parent, to get your kids moving in the right direction.

While modeling an active lifestyle is the single most powerful tool parents can use to persuade their kids to adopt good fitness habits, this alone may not be enough. A growing number of fitness experts and concerned parents are experimenting with new ways to ignite kids’ interest in physical activity.

New video-based toys like the Wii are proving to be one popular solution. They are effective in engaging many kids who might otherwise refuse to move. Yet, they are expensive, and they keep kids tethered to indoor screens, preventing them from acquiring important real-life athletic skills and experiences. There is one electronic gadget, however, that we think has lasting promise as a fitness-building tool: a heart-rate monitor.

Some forward-thinking schools have begun incorporating heart-rate monitors into their PE programs. (To learn about one such program being sponsored by Polar, visit But regardless of whether your kids’ school has taken this step, we encourage you to introduce your kids to heart-rate monitoring at home.

We highly recommend heart-rate monitors for kids and adults alike (for whatever kinds of activities they choose to pursue), because monitors provide compelling, real-time information about exertion and fitness progress. They educate while they motivate. They can be used with virtually any kind of indoor or outdoor activity and at any level of fitness experience.

All of this is important, because kids today are facing some powerful obstacles to exercise — many of which will follow them into adulthood.

Some of the most troublesome barriers include:

  • Lack of Time. This is the No. 1 reason adults give for not being active. But with an increased emphasis on academics, after-school activities and even part-time jobs, lack of time has become an obstacle for kids, too. We like the fact that heart-rate monitors can be employed during the activities that kids already do every day, from playing video games to running for the school bus. By starting to associate various levels of activity (or nonactivity) with varying heart rates, they get nonjudging feedback about how much of their day is spent in active or sedentary pastimes. This can motivate them to move more.
  • Screen Syndrome. Computers and television can suck hours from a kid’s day, making the vast majority of his or her waking hours sedentary ones. It’s up to parents to establish limits that balance screen time with active time. But such rules can backfire if your kids begin to perceive exercise as a punishment, a chore or something inherently boring. By suggesting that your child wear her heart-rate monitor during screen-based activities, you can help her observe how low her rate is while seated passively and how quickly it rises during even brief bursts of excitement or activity. By explaining that long stretches of low-rate activities are unhealthy, you may be able to convince her to raise her heart rate more often, or at least help her understand why you insist on setting screen-time limits for her benefit.
  • Boredom. Adults are sometimes willing to stick to mundane exercise programs because they are more interested in health benefits than in whether they are “having fun.” But if kids don’t see an activity as enjoyable, they simply won’t do it. The challenge with kids is to offer them something that will keep them engaged but not overwhelm them. Heart-rate monitors are helpful in this regard, because they provide continuous feedback and give kids something interesting to focus on. This allows them to experiment with self-observation, benchmarking and goal setting — fitness skills they can continue to develop and enjoy for a lifetime. Heart-rate monitors can deliver as much or as little information as required to hold your child’s interest (although it may take some experimenting to discover his or her particular appetite for data).

Making It Fun

Showing kids how to measure their heart rates with a monitor helps them understand their own physiology and encourages them to get their hearts pumping. It also helps overcome the three big obstacles described at left.

You’ll be surprised at how fascinated kids are by their heart rates, particularly once they learn a few basic principles and skills. It goes without saying, though, that simply strapping a heart-rate monitor on your child’s body is unlikely to instill an abiding love of activity. Your best bet is to leverage your child’s natural interest and inclinations.

Most kids respond well to the structure of games: They like easy-to-understand rules and some direction, but they don’t want to be bossed around. (For ideas, see “Heart-Pumping Fun: 12 Games to Try at Home,” below.)

To get started, provide your child with a heart-rate monitor (see “Equipment Tips,” below) and show him or her how to operate it. Don’t worry about any advanced functions for now, but do study the basic instructions before you attempt to use the monitor for the first time, or your child may lose interest while you read and fiddle.

You might strap the monitor on yourself first and let your kid see you using it. Once he expresses interest, offer to let him try it. Do you have a fiercely independent or technically inclined kid? You might even ask for help figuring out how to make the monitor work.

Next, encourage (or challenge) your child to monitor his or her heart rate while doing all sorts of everyday activities: sitting, running, bike riding, shopping, and playing games like basketball or tag. (For tips on tracking heart rate, see “What’s Your Number?” below.)

Ask your child various questions about his or her findings. Here are some examples:

  • What’s your heart rate when you’re walking as fast as you can? How do you feel at this level of intensity? (Responses might include, “This is easy,” “I feel warm,” or “I’m breathing harder now.”)
  • What do you feel like when you’re doing other activities? Which heart rates are comfortable, and which are challenging?
  • At what heart rate do you start to feel out of breath?
  • What is your average heart rate after two, five or 10 minutes of doing various activities?
  • What is the highest heart-rate number that you can reach in various activities?
  • How much does your heart rate drop in one minute when you stop an activity? (The fitter the heart, the faster the heart rate drops.)
  • How does your heart rate vary throughout the day and the week? How does your heart rate compare with that of other family members?
  • What happens to your heart rate when you watch a scary scene on TV? What about when you think about taking a big test? What about happy or relaxing stuff? (Emotion often has a strong effect on heart rate, which may surprise kids and help them understand how their body and mind are connected.)

Heart to Heart

In addition to discussing your children’s answers to those questions, you might have them write their responses in a special journal. They may have a lot of questions. Don’t feel you have to become an expert on heart-rate training to answer all these inquiries, but do strategize with your children about how they might go about finding additional information (a trip to your local library, gym, bookstore, or a quick Web search, for example).

After determining what their heart rates are after riding a bike for 10 minutes, ask them to guess what it would be after 15 minutes or 20 minutes, and then have them discover the answers themselves. Playing “what if” with the heart-rate results also creates a context for challenging kids to understand ➺ the patterns by which their heart rates fluctuate and to experiment with ways to improve their previous marks.

As your children’s interest in and mastery of heart-rate monitoring progresses, you might find yourself doing some research with them or seeking out a PE teacher or professional trainer to help answer their questions. This quest into physical self-discovery, combined with confidence in using technology and getting more informed about fitness topics, can start your kids on a healthy and exciting journey — with luck, one that will last a lifetime.

What’s Your Number?

Using a chart or other interactive tool is a great way to make your child’s heart-rate-monitoring activities more interesting and motivating. You can work with your child to re-create the chart below using construction paper and markers (you can also print out a letter-size, PDF version of it here). The beats-per-minute (bpm) numbers written into the chart are for example only. Your child’s actual heart rate may vary considerably.

Once you have the chart, have your children do each activity for three to 10 minutes while wearing a heart-rate monitor. Then record their bpm. For example, their heart rate at a fast jog might be 175 bpm. You can also use other methods to record their heart rates, such as a spreadsheet, a big wall chart or a special notebook. You might even consider investing in a downloadable heart-rate monitor that allows them to store data in a computer, produce graphs and track fitness progress.

Step It Up

Not ready to take the heart-rate-monitor plunge? Pick up a pedo­meter and have your children track how many steps they take during the day. This can encourage them to continually increase their daily step count. How many steps do they take on a normal school day? How does this compare with a regular weekend day? The research is inconclusive as to the number of steps per day that children should achieve, but the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports recommends the average should be 11,000 for girls ages 6 to 17, and 13,000 for boys ages 6 to 17.

Equipment Tips

When shopping for a heart-rate monitor that will motivate your munchkin, keep these tips in mind:

  • Get the right fit. Be sure to select a smaller heart-rate monitor for your child. Polar recently introduced an “E Series” line of monitors small and simple enough for children to use. They were designed to be used as part of Polar’s “New PE” in-school program, which focuses on getting kids to work out at their individual heart-rate and fitness levels. If you buy a larger model, you can easily alter elastic straps to fit smaller kids — just make a few stitches in the elastic or use a large safety pin to take up the slack.
  • Keep it simple. Select a monitor with a good display (ideally one that lets you see the heart rate big and bold, front and center) and no more than three buttons. Avoid complex functions like time and distance and downloadable workout histories unless you’re certain that your techno whiz kid will be transfixed by these more advanced features. Too many details can present barriers to entry. Avoid calorie-counting mechanisms, too, or at least don’t emphasize them: The focus should be firmly on fitness and fun, not on fat burning or weight loss.
  • Make it durable. Kids play hard, so sturdy is good. Is the receiver’s face recessed so it is less prone to being scratched? Are the latching mechanisms and hinges on the receiver and transmitter all solid? Is the wristwatch element water resistant? Are batteries changeable by you or a jewelry shop, or must you return them to the manufacturer for service? Look for a good warranty, too: A reputable manufacturer will offer a two-year replace-or-repair program.

17 Heart-Pumping Games for Kids!

Here are a dozen active games that will get kids’ hearts pumping — whether they are tracked by a heart-rate monitor or not. These games take the “work” out of the “workout,” so your kids will actually want to do them. All have simple rules, most can be played by just one to three kids, and most require little or no equipment or supervision. If you do have the time to join in the fun, however, your participation will probably be welcomed (if only to referee) — and you’ll get some heart-healthy exercise of your own.

  1. Skip It. Rope skipping is terrific cardiovascular exercise. There are many advanced jump-rope skills, but have kids start with basic skipping and jumping. Two or more kids can see who can skip or jump longest without tripping on the rope — or bungling the lyrics of a rhyming song.

  2. Octopus Tag. From the middle of a field, the “octopus” yells “Octopus!” and “swimmers” on either sideline must dash to the opposite “shore” (sideline) without getting tagged. The swimmer tagged first becomes the new octopus.
  3. 52-Card Pickup. A deck of cards is scattered in the middle of a grass field. At “Go,” kids race from the sideline to collect them, but they can retrieve only one at a time before returning to the sideline. The game ends when all cards have been retrieved, then scores are added based on the cards’ numbers (face cards are worth 10 points). This can be a team game, with teams using opposite sidelines.
  4. Speed. Remember “Around the World,” that basketball game where you advance around the key to the next spot each time you make a shot? “Speed” is a more exciting, faster-paced version because there’s no waiting turns, and hustle is as important as shooting accuracy. Several spots are marked with chalk, then two kids compete by simultaneously starting at the spots farthest apart and shooting nonstop until the winner makes all the shots on the circuit.
  5. Refrigerator Tag. Two or more players stand at bases (a baseball diamond is best), with “It” in the middle. When It yells out a food, beverage or almost anything else, the players dash to the base that best describes their opinion of it: “Like It” (first base), “Love It” (second base), “Hate It” (third base) or “Never Tried It” (home plate). If It tags a player before he or she reaches base, that player is the new It.
  6. Scrabble Scramble. Index cards with letters of the alphabet are scattered face-down on a field. At “Go,” one child from each team of two or three players races to the letters, grabs one and runs it back, then a teammate does the same, and so on. Teammates on the sideline try to form a word while awaiting their next turn to run, and each game ends when a team succeeds. Points are given for the number of letters used; play continues until a team reaches 25 points.
  7. All-In Tag. This is traditional tag, except whomever is tagged also becomes “It” until all players are It. The fun lies in players forgetting who is and isn’t It.
  8. Pedal for Prizes. Install a bike computer ($30 and up) on your child’s bike and promise prizes for mileage accumulated.
  9. Scavenger Photo Hike. Make hiking more fun for kids by having them take and share pictures of three items in each of several categories. Categories might include different species of trees, flowering plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.
  10. Soccer or Basketball. Your child doesn’t have to join a team to enjoy these sports. In fact, he or she may enjoy them more without the trappings of organized sports: the uniforms, coaches, referees, timed periods and copious rules. The minimal requirements: a backyard lawn for soccer (yard barrels can serve as goals) or a driveway hoop for basketball.
  11. Active Video Games. If the weather is lousy or it’s dark out, your child can get a decent workout playing a Wii-type game. They’ve been shown to raise the heart rate appreciatively. Among the most popular: Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Tennis, Wii Boxing, XerBike Pro and LaserSquash.
  12. Exercise Vids. A low-cost, indoor alternative to Wii-type games are exercise DVDs. Many are made just for kids, although teens may prefer any of the thousands geared to adults. Workout, dance and martial arts DVDs are sold at or, or can be rented from
  13. Rally! Two to four kids on a tennis or racquetball court see how long they can keep the ball bouncing in the cooperative version of this game. The only rule is that they follow the same order striking the ball (for example, A-B-A-B for two kids). The “count” is called out by the ball striker. The rally ends when the ball has stopped bouncing. In the competitive version, kids try to make the ball stop bouncing when it’s on the opposing side, usually by slamming or tapping it.
  14. Category Tag: Traditional tag rules are followed, except that when a player is about to be tagged, he or she can void it by naming something from an announced category — for example, states, books or neighbors’ names. No repeats are allowed. Each new “It” gets to name a new category.
  15. Sevens: In this field game using a Frisbee or any ball, a team (2-on-2, 3-on-3, etc.) scores a point by completing seven straight passes without the defense intercepting or knocking it down. Players can only go for the ball, with any intentional physical contact stopping the action and resulting in a point for the offended team. Teams take turns with the ball; the first team to seven points wins.
  16. Reverse Tag:  In a prescribed area, “It” flees during a count of five, then everyone else gives chase. The first to tag “It” becomes the new “It” and gets a count of five to get away, and so on.
  17. Clean-up Race:  In a playground or small park, kids are sent off to fill a shopping bag with as much litter as possible in 10 or 20 minutes. (Warn them about not touching broken glass.) Prizes go to first, second and third place for the fullest bags. Bonus for parents: no need to hide anything.

Heart Zones ( founder Sally Edwards, MA, MBA, is a professional triathlete and the author of 20 books on fitness and sports.

Bev Robinson, BPE, BEd, MA, is a professional educator with the Calgary Board of Education. She is a multiple Canadian and World Cup cycling champion and a member of the Canadian National Cycling Team.

This article originally appeared as “Active at Heart” in the September 2009 issue of Experience Life.

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