Understanding the Balance of Nutrition and Exercise

A little girl throws up a ball in the air in a playroom

Understanding the Balance of Nutrition and Exercise

Maintaining healthy habits is an important life skill to model for children. This is especially true when it comes to exercise and eating. Learning the right balance of nutrition and physical fitness can be a challenge for adults, but it is also an issue for children. The research is clear: children who are overweight during the first years of life increase their risk for obesity and chronic disease later in life. Did you know that about 10 percent of children under the age of 2, and about 22 percent of children between 2-5 years old are considered overweight or obese?

A great way to start thinking about your child’s fitness and nutrition is through the simple concept of energy balance. Children need energy, or calories, every day in order to play, be active and grow. Energy comes from food and drink, but some foods and drinks have more energy (calories) than others.

1. The Energy Balance Equation

In order for children to maintain a healthy weight, they must balance the amount of energy consumed with the energy spent through physical activity. To put it mathematically: Energy In = Energy Out. If a child takes in more energy than his body burns up, he will disrupt the balance and store this extra energy as excess fat, which can result in weight gain. Our cultural addiction to TV and video games does not help the energy balance equation and research suggests that screen-based inactive behaviors are actually more likely to stimulate high calorie food intake.

2. How is Energy is Burned?

Not all of the calories a child consumes each day will be spent during physical activity:

  • Between 45 and 70 percent of a child’s total energy expenditure fuels basic functions such as breathing, pumping blood, digestion, maintaining body temperature and growing.
  • The remaining 30 to 55 percent of a child’s total energy expenditure is used for physical activity.

Toddlers typically require between 1,000 and 1,400 calories each day; children between the ages of 4-8 require 1,400-1,600 calories; and 9 to 13-year-olds require 1,600-2,000 calories.

3. Restoring the Balance for Children

Eating just 150 calories more a day than you burn can lead to an extra 10 pounds a year. In general, it takes about 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity (walking, climbing on the playground, kicking a ball) to burn off 150 calories. If parents feel the energy balance needs to be restored for their child, they must reduce the energy in or increase the energy out. Doing both is the best way to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

4. Beware of Sugar

Sugar has become a major threat to the energy balance equation. It is estimated that children between the ages of 2-5 consume an average of 208 empty calories (or calories lacking nutrients) from sugar each day. Parents can combat this by reducing the amount of processed foods their children consume, such as breads, cakes, soft drinks, jams and ice cream. Sugar can also be hidden or added to foods; beware of excess white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey and molasses.

All of this information about Energy In = Energy Out is not to imply that parents should monitor their child’s every move when it comes to nutrition and physical activity. Simply having an understanding of the concept of energy balance can help you be more aware the choices you make that impact your child’s health and wellness. The most important takeaway is to simply ensure your child is eating food that nourishes his body and has ample opportunities to play and exercise every day.

Have questions about your child’s physical activity or energy balance? Find more information on the concept of Energy In/Energy Out at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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