by Dr A. Gabriel Schifman

Healthier weight, greater self-confidence, higher grades, better blood pressure, a quicker brain -- the perks of exercise are as vital for kids as for adults. Too bad so many eight-to-18-year-olds aren't getting those benefits. Instead, tweens and early teens average nearly nine hours a day staring at screens, mainly TV or video games. But before you pull the plug, here's what researchers have found to be the best and worst ways to get kids moving…and loving it.

The Four Best

  1. Get that puppy. Kids with dogs watch less TV and are more physically active than those whose families don't include a canine.
  2. Act like they're the next LeBron James or Mia Hamm. Parents who believe their offspring have athletic ability are more likely to have kids who are physically active. And that belief-to-reality transition starts early: the researchers who found this connection were looking at preschoolers at home, not high school soccer jocks.
  3. Be a role model. According to one large study, kids with active parents are five to six times more physical than kids with couch-potato moms and dads.
  4. Limit screen time. Don't put a TV in kids' bedrooms or leave one on when no one is watching. Children whose parents set rules about screen time spend about three hours less staring at electronics each day than do kids with lenient parents.

The Three Worst

  1. Don't depend on team sports. Only 24 percent of kids on soccer, baseball and softball teams get a full hour of activity -- the recommended minimum -- during practice. Most are inactive for 30 minutes or so.
  2. Don't send small fry to school in fussy outfits or flip-flops. It'll keep them from zooming around the playground and swinging on the monkey bars. Follow school rules for recess-approved gear.
  3. Don't expect kids to work out like you do. Young minds and muscles are built for stop-and-start action, not a long, steady jog. Think tag, kick-the-can or activities with lots of variety, such as walking on a trail dotted with exercise equipment or organizing a game of kickball or Frisbee. That holds until kids are tweens or teens, when rising sex hormones (testosterone, estradiol) prime muscles for sustained activities, such as hikes, swimming laps or long bike rides.