Today, we know a lot more about the importance of engaging the brains of children ages 5 and under than we did a generation or two ago.

Those young brains, as many characterize, are sponges for information. And responsible parents know to take advantage of it and feed those brains with reading, games and other mind-developing activities.

Now, researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health say young children need something that also may not have been apparent to us in the past.

Exercise. And a lot of it.

The big consensus

USC researchers Russ Pate and Jennifer O’Neill recently recommended that children age 6 and under get a total of three hours of physical activity every day, largely because of the obesity epidemic.

Their recommendation was published online in the “Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine” on Oct. 15. The recommendation stems from the fact that when the federal government first approved “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” in 2008, no recommendation was made for children 6 and under.

Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2009-10 that 26.7 percent of children ages 2-5 were obese or overweight, putting them at an early physical disadvantage.

“Because obesity rates have increased in young children, numerous authorities have recommended actions that should be taken to address the problem,” says Pate and O’Neill in the commentary, simply titled “Physical Activity Guidelines for Young Children: An Emerging Consensus.”

They admit that the evidence on which to base physical activity is limited, but that there is a “clear need to provide guidance” for the age group.

The need is underscored by the fact that within the past two years, three “authoritative organizations” in three countries — the Institute of Medicine in the United States, the United Kingdom Chief Medical Officers and the Commonwealth of Australia Department of Health and Aging — all came to similar conclusion, three hours a day, independent of each other.

No treadmills

“That suggests that the evidence is clear enough,” says Pate.

Eventually, Pate expects the recommendation to work its way into federal guidelines and have some effect on practice among parents and other child-care providers.

The caveat of all this is that what’s considered activity for preschoolers is vastly different from that of teens and adults.

O’Neill says recommendations for adults is for moderate to intense activity for sustained periods of times, such as 30-minute segments, adding up to 150 minutes per week.

“It (the recommendation for young children) doesn’t mean a 3-year-old needs to be on a treadmill for three hours a day,” O’Neill says.

For children, all activity counts toward the three-hour recommendation. And because children can’t sustain long periods of exercise, activity is spaced in small quantities throughout the day.

Avoiding stillness

Because that’s hard to structure, O’Neill says achieving the goals involves trying to promote movement throughout the day. Ways to do that include having children spend time outside because, “We know kids are more active outside than inside,” O’Neill says.

Or periodically play music.

“Young children love to move, and sometimes all you have to do is put on music and they’ll start to dance.”

Another tactic, Pate says, is simply not setting kids up to be sedentary.

“We’re not recommending that parents get a stopwatch out and become obsessed about this,” Pate says. “Rather, we want parents to avoid situations in which children sit for long periods of time or that prevent them from moving.”

Examples of the latter, Pate says, involve being propped up in front of a TV for an hour or sending them to some day-care facilities that tend to “warehouse” kids or discourage them from movement.

“It’s not normal or natural for kids to be inactive, but we can condition them to be inactive,” Pate says. “The opposite works, too. We can shape their behavior to be active, and I think that process begins early.”