What does moderate to vigorous physical activity mean for kids?

Most of us have heard the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity “MVP” daily, but what does this actually mean?

Many of my patient families know this guideline, but lack the understanding of how to apply it to their everyday lives. It can be confusing! What activities constitute as MVP? How can I get my child to participate in activities that get to this intensity?

These are all good questions.  Simply put, moderate and vigorous are terms to explain how hard your body is working when doing that particular activity. Exercise physiologists measure activity in metabolic equivalents, or METS. One MET is define as the energy used at rest. Moderate-intensity activities are those that have you moving fast enough to burn off three to six times as much energy per minute as you would when sitting quietly. These would be exercises within 3 – 6 METS such as riding a bike at a light effort or heavy cleaning (vacuuming, washing windows).

Vigorous-intensity activities would be anything greater than 6 METS such as playing in a basketball game or shoveling snow. While this method gives us a good guideline of moderate and vigorous activities, it’s important to note that it does not take into account the individual’s level of fitness. For instance, a brisk walk (4 mph) is considered a moderate activity, but it could be a hard pace to maintain or an easy activity depending on the child.

Below is a table with some ideas of moderate and vigorous activities.


Moderate-Intensity
Approximately 3.0-6.0 METS

Vigorous-Intensity
Approximately >6.0 METS
  • Brisk walking (4mph)
  • Wii Fit/DDR
  • Gardening (weeding)
  • Shooting baskets
  • Yoga
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Roller skating
  • Running
  • Walking / climbing briskly up a hill
    • Fast cycling
    • Playing in a soccer game (field hockey, racquetball, basketball…)
    • Shoveling snow
    • Fast swimming

So how do we break it down in simple terms for our children? For most of us, it is easier to go by the way our body is feeling to know if we have reached that level of intensity. I commonly use two tools to help my patients understand how moderate to vigorous activity makes their bodies feel. For many of my patients, getting to this level of activity can be a big challenge. It is important that we slowly work our way up to 60 minutes. Also, this 60 minutes does not need to be consecutive. It can be broken up into smaller bouts of activity.

For adolescents, we use the Borg RPE Scale (rate of perceived exertion). This scale starts at a level 6 being activity that occurs at rest and requires no exertion, such as reading a book, and level 20 which requires maximal exertion like a full out sprint. We encourage our teens to be between a 13 (somewhat hard) and 15 (hard). We help them learn to self-regulate how their body is feeling while doing activity. For example, if they are going to be swimming we would want the activity to feel to them somewhat hard to hard while they are doing it.

But who wants to carry a scale around when doing activity? To break it down even further, we use the quick SING TALK GASP test. While doing your activity you should not be able to sing the new Taylor Swift song without getting out of breath, but you should not be gasping for air either. You should be able to have a short conversation.

Try going on a family walk after dinner and do the SING TALK GASP test! Make sure you can talk briefly with each other, but it’s time to pick up the pace if you can sing to each other! For our younger children, we use the term “GLOW.” Explaining that when they are done playing outside or riding their bike or going to the playground, we want them to have the “GLOW.” Cheeks red, a little (or a lot) sweaty and heavier breathing will put them in the “GLOW” zone! If they are glowing, then they will be within the moderate to vigorous intensity of activity.  Whatever tool you use with your child, it is important to remember that the more fun and engaging the activity is –the more likely they are to play hard and long! So get up and get GLOWing!


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