Do Kids Really Need to Refuel After 'Exercise'?

What your kids do and don't need to stay fueled for fitness.

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You might be wondering why the word exercise is in quotations. It's in quotations because it would seem that, over the years, the definition of what constitutes exercise - especially for children - has changed.

Yoni Freedhoff
Yoni Freedhoff
Nowadays, it would seem that, with children at least, exercise is defined almost by intention alone, whereby even the briefest bouts of the stuff lead to praise and, more often than not, to food. And, of course, the food nowadays is often sugary and rarely healthful. Gone are the days of orange slices and water on the sports field.

[See: How to Take a Stand Against Junk Food.]

Take this past weekend in my neck of the woods. There were two kids "races" that I'm aware of. One was a community event supporting a local charity, and the other was a fundraiser for my own children's schools. The community race was a 100-meter "fun trot," while my kids' was either a 1-kilometer walk or a 3-kilometer run and was open to children from pre-school through grade eight. The undoubtedly well-intentioned community organizers provided their finishers with snow cones; at my kids' event, a full meal was laid out – at 10 a.m.

And these examples are anything but exceptional. As noted on Eat + Run before, there truly doesn't seem to be a children's event too small or too short to not see it christened with candy or junk food. And in regard to events where children are moving (exercise being too strong a word to describe, for instance, a soccer game for 6-year-olds or a 100-meter "trot"), the provision of candy or junk fuels a message that I believe is helping fuel our rising rates of childhood obesity – that kids need to refuel, or recover, after even the briefest bits of exercise and that such refueling is both important and deserved.

[See: Performance Foods: What and When to Eat Before Your Next Workout.]

The fact of the matter is, unless a child is vigorously active for more than a full hour, there's really no need for any sort of refueling other than water. Their bodies' existing energy stores will be more than sufficient to see them through their exercise and will, in turn, be replenished with plain old non-exercise-induced eating.

As far as hydration goes, with the coming summer heat, it's certainly an important consideration. If you know your child is going to be active, make sure you pre-hydrate them with a glass of water before they hit the field. For activities of less than an hour's duration, water's all they need - two-thirds of a cup of ice-cold water every 20 minutes of activity for kids weighing less than 90 pounds and a full cup for kids weighing more.

[See: Popular Kids' Drinks to Avoid.]

Make sure that your children are also dressed in light-colored clothing that is designed to encourage evaporation (meaning, stay away from 100-percent cotton on the field). This too will help to keep them cool.

As far as sports drinks go, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the life-threatening loss of electrolytes in kids who are active for fewer than four consecutive hours is exceedingly rare. That said, if your child is going to be active for long periods of time, and you're worried about electrolytes, have them "refuel" or "recover" with food rather than the sports-drink or chocolate-milk sugar bombs. Options might include fruits, salted nuts, whole-grain pitas with their favorite spread or perhaps an easy, homemade, granola-style bar.

Kids' gas tanks are much larger than we think. Please don't top them up unnecessarily.

[See: Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.