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Physical Activity & Your Child’s Sleep

I doubt that I’m overreaching by saying that the last year has brought about some significant challenges for, well, pretty much every single person in the entire world. And without minimising the struggles of others, I feel like the parents of young children have been impacted in very unique and challenging ways.

We’re all familiar with the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and even though the makeup of that village has changed significantly over the years, it’s still as true as it ever was. Back in the day that village might have been made up mostly of your neighbours and relatives, but play groups, daycares, dance classes, football clubs, and other organised forms of social interaction have taken their place for a lot of parents.

Or at least they did before all of this Covid stuff showed up and turned our world upside down.

This pandemic has presented the parents of young children with several obstacles to overcome, but me being a sleep expert, I’m going to focus on what I know best.

Now, I like to think I’ve got as much energy as the average mum out there, but there’s no way I can keep up with my little ones on a physical level to the degree that another child can. Kids have so much energy, and the best way for them to burn it off, in my opinion, is by playing with other kids. 

Of course, with the rules on gathering together in groups of no more than six people or two families, most of us are locked out of the usual meet-ups we typically rely on to get our kids some exercise, and without those play dates and playground time, they’re likely not getting nearly as much physical activity as they used to.

So what does that have to do with their sleep?

It’s a commonly-held belief that getting a lot of physical activity helps people sleep well at night, and evidence certainly supports that theory. A 2009 study from the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Auckland found that every hour of sedentary activity during the day resulted in an average of 3.1 minutes more in sleep latency, or in layman’s terms, the time it took the child to fall asleep after going to bed. Higher rates of activity resulted in less sleep latency, but the formula they used to come up with the times is a little trickier to follow. (—1.2 minutes per 102 movement count per minute, p = 0.05, for you scientific types out there.)

Those numbers might not seem astounding, exactly, but over a few nights, this can actually result in a bit of a vicious cycle. Your child isn’t getting a lot of exercise during the day, so they have a slightly harder time falling asleep at night. That leaves them feeling a little lethargic the next day, which leads to even less activity, which leads to even less sleep. You can see how this can start to spiral out of control pretty quickly.

Another commonly-held belief is that once we get really tired, we tend to fall asleep earlier to compensate, but a lot of people are surprised to learn that overtiredness actually has the opposite effect. Our brains fire up our cortisol production in an attempt to provide energy for whatever emergency we’re staying awake for, making it even more difficult to fall asleep. 

So with all of that in mind, here are a few suggestions for some fun activities you can engage in with your little one while we plod our way through what we can only hope are the last few months of this awful pandemic.

Dancing

My personal favorite, and the favorite of a lot of kids as well. Throw on a YouTube video of a kids’ zumba routine and let your little one go to town. I know, okay? We’ve all heard “I Like to Move It” enough to last us several lifetimes, but this is for the greater good.

Bike Rides

When it comes to socially distanced outdoor exercise, you can’t do much better than the good old fashioned bike ride. Kids have to pedal faster and harder than adults to keep up the same pace, so you can hopefully burn off their energy around the same time you’ve hit your limit. Plus the changing scenery will help keep both of your minds off the fact that you’re exercising.

Yoga

Oh yeah, kids can absolutely do yoga, and a lot of them actually love it! They’re naturally flexible so they’re able to get into a lot of poses their parents can’t which is always a thrill for them. Counting how long they can hold the poses gives them a goal to work towards, and practicing mindfulness and serenity is something that’s beneficial for people of any age. Check out Cosmic Kids Yoga for some really exceptional videos. The instructor incorporates popular kids stories into her routines and, well, it’s pretty great.

Hello Neighbor

This is a really clever variation of tag/hide and seek that I heard about shortly after the lockdown started. If your little one has a friend in the neighborhood, ideally only a few houses apart, you and your neighbor each hide an extra key somewhere outside and tell the kids whoever finds the key and unlocks the other’s front door first is the winner. It keeps them apart from each other but still running around with a goal.

Wii Sports/Wii Fit

This one requires a bit of an investment, and I know that some parents think that video games and exercise are polar opposites, but the Nintendo Wii is a different beast. The sports games actually involve a significant amount of movement, and when it comes to keeping kids engaged and wanting more, this guy is the heavyweight champ. You can get a refurbished one for £69.99, which if you think about how much they’re likely to use it, is a pretty good deal.

However you choose to ensure your little one gets enough physical activity, don’t shrug it off with the thought that we’re (please oh please) coming to the end of this Covid situation, and that they’ll be back playing football with their friends soon enough. A commitment to an active lifestyle is something they’ll learn from their parents, and the benefits it will have to their sleep, mood, and overall well-being are learned behaviors that will last a lifetime. 

Jill Lawson

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