On the Pulse

Indoor Active Play for Heart Health

3.13.2024 | Heather Cooper

A father and his young daughter and son dancing happily in a living roomActive kids enjoy improved mental wellness and reduce their risk of heart disease. While the days are short and the weather is often cold or dreary, kids still need to be getting physical activity each and every day.

February is American Heart Month and On The Pulse asked Dr. Monique Burton, medical director of the Sports Medicine Program, to share ideas for indoor activities that put a smile on a child’s face and get their heart pumping.

What is active play?

Active play is most forms of physical activity that children can do, like playing on a playground or dancing to music. Active play can be inside or outside, and it can be led by an adult or not led by an adult. Signs that a child is playing enough to achieve active play are when they breathe faster, get warm, break a sweat, have an increased heart rate or have pink cheeks.

“Active play is a social opportunity to interact with family and friends,” said Burton. “It’s fun, and it helps establish the importance of movement for ongoing health at a young age.”

What is exercise?

Exercise is also physical activity, but it’s usually more structured, planned and repetitive. Most physical activity that young kids get is through active play, rather than exercise.

What are the benefits of active play and exercise?

There are many benefits to kids participating in active play and exercise, including that kids and teens who are fit are more likely to be fit as adults. Movement and exercise help with weight control and decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions. Kids who exercise will also be more alert during the day, perform better in school, sleep better at night and benefit from a better mood and decreased stress.

How much active play or exercise do kids need?

Preschoolers should be active throughout the day, getting about 3 hours of active play. Children and and teens should be active for 60 minutes or more each day. The movement doesn’t have to be all at once. It’s fine to break the activity into 10- or 15-minute segments. This allows for a wide variety of activities throughout the day and keeps it fun and interesting for kids with shorter attention spans.

Help ensure your child is moving enough every day by reminding your daycare or preschool to make time for lots of active play, and advocate for recess and physical education for older kids.

Ideas for indoor active play

  • Create your own indoor Olympics. Set up fitness stations throughout the house: pushups in the bedroom, crunches in the hallway, planking in the family room, and a stair-climb on the real stairs.
  • Set up an obstacle course where you climb under the table, hop over pillows, weave through stuffed animals, etc. Be creative with your props!
  • Bring back classic games, like “Tag,” “Duck, Duck, Goose,” “Simon Says” and “Follow the Leader.”
  • Crank up the music and have a dance party. Mix it up with rounds of freeze dancing.
  • Use colorful masking tape to create a hopscotch course on the carpet or use colored chalk on the garage floor.
  • Make family chore time active with house cleaning that gets you moving – sweeping, mopping, vacuuming.
  • Get moving with the help of a workout show or fitness video game.
  • Practice stretching or yoga.
  • Bounce an inflated balloon back and forth using your hands, feet and head — keeping it afloat as long as possible (balloons are a choking hazard for children under 3).
  • Clear some space for using a hula hoop or jump rope inside.
  • Make a ball out of masking tape and play indoor baseball using your hand as a bat.
  • Create a timed indoor scavenger hunt.
  • Act out favorite stories.
  • Check out your local community center or YMCA for open gyms, indoor playgrounds and low-cost classes.
  • Public indoor swimming pools offer open swim times and lessons for all ages and skill levels. Stop by your local pool to get an activities schedule and ask about low-cost options or scholarships.

Keep it fun

Most young kids are naturally drawn to active play, but with age, sometimes kids who don’t identify themselves as athletes start to get less physical activity. Encourage sampling activities, trying out a variety of movement, and keep it fun! Allow your child to be creative and have choice in how to get moving. Young kids don’t always like structured games with rules, so allowing them to create the activity or have choice can be a motivation.

Burton suggests these tips for keeping the focus on fun:

  • Include your child in planning.
  • Encourage fun rather than skill.
  • Pretend – let your child lead you in an “exercise class.”
  • Set up a hydration station with water bottles to sip from.
  • Combine dress-up and activity by wearing funny headbands, crazy socks and gym shorts.
  • Make a special heart-healthy snack to enjoy after a longer session of activity.
  • Involve other kids or peers, especially for older kids.
  • When possible, make active play a family affair.

Instill a love of healthy living early on

When children are active from the start they establish healthy habits that can last a lifetime. They learn how to fit activity into their day and how to make healthy living a priority.

“When you spend time in active play or getting movement together it’s a nice way to connect with your kids while having fun,” said Burton. “The side benefit is that it also keeps you active or moving!”