Being the parent of a preschooler is pretty exhausting. Young children seem to be in constant motion. So most parents assume that their three- to six-year-olds get enough exercise. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true.

The problem is most pronounced among preschoolers who spend a significant amount of their days in childcare. These kids are generally not getting enough exercise, according to a new study. It found that only three in 10 children in full-day child care programs got at least 60 minutes of outdoor recess.

One third of the children had no time outdoors.

“We know daily physical activity is essential for children’s growth and development. It improves cardiovascular and bone health and has been linked to improved mood, attention, and cognitive performance,” researcher Dr. Kristen Copeland said in a statement. “Yet, few preschoolers are meeting daily physical activity recommendations of 60 minutes or more per day.”

Over half of U.S. children attend daycare, and many live in areas that offer few, if any, safe environments for outdoor play when they are at home. The result is a public health problem with long-term implications.

Why Exercise Matters For Preschoolers

The benefits of exercise cannot be overstated. This is true of every age group from preschoolers to senior citizens. From cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal health, to mental health and thinking and learning skills, regular physical exercise — especially the kind that makes you sweat — has repeatedly been shown to make a big difference in both long- and short-term health.

In addition to its immediate health benefits, exercise in early life helps children develop good habits for continued fitness. Supporting healthy, active lifestyles in the early years is the best defense against the obesity plaguing so many older adults and children.

How Schools Encourage Active Play
To understand how much physical activity kids were actually getting at childcare, researchers from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center looked at the types of indoor and outdoor play spaces of 30 daycare centers.

They analyzed the equipment each offered and whether it encouraged or discouraged physical activity. For example, were there balls and riding toys available, how available were computers and other screen-based activities, and were the daycare providers trained in leading children in physical activity?

There were big discrepancies between the amount of outdoor time preschools scheduled and the amount of time children actually spent being active.

Finally, they looked at how much time preschools set aside each day for outdoor or large muscle play, and they compared these schedules to the actual amount of time kids spent in these activities. And it is here that some of the biggest problems showed up.

On paper, most of the preschools offered a reasonable amount of outdoor time, but there were big discrepancies between the amount of outdoor time preschools scheduled and the amount of time children actually spent being active.

About 90% of the centers studied reported that they scheduled two or more outdoor sessions daily. The data, however, showed that only 40% of the children actually had two or more outdoor sessions. And one-third of the children spent no time outdoors. Similarly, 83% of the centers reported scheduling an hour or more of outdoor time, but only 28% of the observed children experienced this much. The researchers concluded that outdoor time occurred less often than it was scheduled in the majority of settings.

Outdoor Time Is Active Time
They also found that when the children had an hour or more of outdoor time, they were more active over a 24-hour period than those children at centers with less outdoor time scheduled. Surprisingly, the study did not find that the nature and size of a preschool's indoor and outdoor playing areas, or the availability of screen-based activities, had an impact on the activity levels of the preschoolers.

The team concluded that childcare centers can influence and increase children's physical activity by sticking to a schedule that includes at least 60 minutes of outdoor time daily. This strategy is no problem for many centers.

Parents may want to investigate the outdoor play time policies of their children's daycare centers. Some guidelines suggest that centers have at least an hour per day of structured physical activity that is led by a teacher and an hour of free play physical activity time. They may wish to ask about the scheduled and supervised outdoor times, how much the children actually participate, and the center's policies and alternatives when bad weather prevents outdoor play.

Parents are role models when it comes to exercise. Look for outdoor play opportunities when your children are not in daycare to increase the opportunities for moderate to vigorous physical activities. The whole family will benefit from increasing physical activity.

The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.