Bright Futures at Georgetown University
Bright Futures in Practice: Physical Activity



To embrace physical activity and establish healthy physical activity behaviors early in life, children and adolescents need opportunities for developmentally appropriate physical activity, safe places in which to be physically active, and encouragement and support. Partnerships among health professionals, families, and communities are essential for establishing opportunities for physical activity. These activities should meet the needs of children and adolescents with diverse interests and abilities, and from all income levels and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Health professionals, families, and communities can also communicate positive, consistent messages that physical activity is fun.

Health Professionals

Health professionals play a key role in promoting physical activity. As part of health supervision visits, they need to assess children's and adolescents' physical activity levels. Health professionals can reinforce the importance of physical activity among physically active children and adolescents, counsel children and adolescents who are not physically active, refer families to appropriate physical activity programs, and identify barriers that keep children and adolescents from participating in physical activity. Health professionals can also establish partnerships with communities (e.g., child care facilities, schools, recreation centers) to raise awareness about the benefits of physical activity for children and adolescents, be positive role models, and serve as advocates for high-quality physical activity programs.


Physical activity begins at home. Children and adolescents who are physically active usually have parents or other family members who encourage them to participate in physical activity, participate in physical activity with them, watch them play or compete, and provide transportation to physical activity and sports events.1,2 Families can be positive role models by participating in physical activity themselves and communicating positive and consistent messages that physical activity is valuable and enjoyable, and that daily physical activity is a priority. For example, parents can walk instead of drive a car to the store and use the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Parents can also limit children's and adolescents' sedentary behaviors, such as watching television and videotapes and playing computer games. Finally, children and adolescents can organize physical activities themselves with friends and family members.


Communities can provide children and adolescents with physical activity opportunities through schools, recreation facilities, parks, organizations that serve children and adolescents (e.g., the YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 4-H), and churches and other places of worship. Communities need to offer enjoyable, developmentally appropriate physical activities that focus on participation, not competition.

Physical activity should be an important component of early childhood education programs such as Head Start and other preschool programs. Students from kindergarten to 12th grade need to participate in daily physical education classes that help them develop motor skills. In elementary schools, recess should provide an opportunity for physical activity. Extracurricular physical activity programs for children and adolescents who are not competitive or sports-oriented should be available through schools.3

Because most physical activity among children and adolescents occurs outside school, it is essential that they have other opportunities to be physically active. Communities can help ensure that children and adolescents have places in which to be physically active. Communities need to consider the following:

* Are there safe playgrounds, parks, and recreation facilities?

* Are school facilities open for use after school hours?

* Are there recreation facilities open to everyone free of charge?

* Are there clearly marked walking and biking trails?

* Are physical activities such as team sports and recreation leagues available?

* Are there physical activity opportunities for both sexes, at all skill levels?

Communities need adequate resources, including finances, facilities, equipment, transportation, safe places, and trained staff, to provide opportunities for physical activity. Partnerships among businesses and other organizations can support programs that are accessible to all children and adolescents in the community. In addition, these partnerships can provide needed clothing, equipment, footwear, and transportation for children and adolescents from families with low incomes to enable them to participate.

To be successful, community physical activity programs for children and adolescents must be appealing and fun. Activities can include running in relay races, playing tag, dancing, bowling, walking, and hiking. Programs need to deemphasize winning and focus on enjoyment and participation. Children and adolescents need challenges that are appropriate for their skill levels.

The following examples highlight community partnerships to promote physical activity in children and adolescents.

Heart Links

Heart Links is funded by the New York State Department of Health. The program's goal is to reduce the risk of heart disease among residents of eastern Long Island by promoting healthy physical activity and eating behaviors. The target group consists of elementary school children and their families, teachers, and administrators. Participation of a wide range of community organizations is coordinated by the University Hospital and Health Sciences Center of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Children and their families can participate in dance clinics, walking clubs, 5K runs, and other activities.

Fitness Fever

Fitness Fever is the result of a partnership among the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Education, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and other organizations interested in children's and adolescents' health. Fitness Fever strives to change physical activity and eating attitudes and behaviors of first- through sixth-grade students throughout the state.


Society has the responsibility and the challenge of ensuring the health and well-being of the current generation and of generations to come. Health professionals, families, and communities can accomplish this goal by working together to help children and adolescents establish healthy physical activity behaviors early in life.


1. Sallis JF, Prochaska JJ, Taylor WC, Hill JO, Geraci JC. 1999. Correlates of physical activity in a nationally representative sample of girls and boys in grades 4 through 12. Health Psychology 18(4):410–415.

2. National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 1998. Survey results link parental physical activity to children's behaviors. Weight-Control Information Network 4(2):2–3.

3. Nader PR, Stone EJ, Lytle LA, Perry CL, Osganian SK, et al. 1999. Three-year maintenance of improved diet and physical activity: The CATCH cohort. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 153(7):695–704.

Suggested Reading

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1997. Guidelines for school and community programs to promote lifelong physical activity among young people. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 46(RR-6):1–36.

Sallis JF, Patrick K. 1994. Physical activity guidelines for adolescents: Consensus statement. Pediatric Exercise Science 6(4) :302–314.

Stone EJ, McKenzie TL, Welk GJ, Booth ML. 1998. Effects of physical activity interventions in youth: Review and synthesis. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 15(4):298–315.


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