Exercise, activity, movement – are our children getting enough? According to the Centers for Disease Control, children should be getting at least one hour of exercise every day. This needs to include aerobic activity, muscle strengthening and bone strengthening. One recent study shows that infants and toddlers need at least 3 hours per day of movement.
I think most of us now realize that exercise is important – but let’s look at why it is so important for our children’s physical and emotional health and then how we can motivate our children – and ourselves – to exercise.
According to kidshealth.org, regular exercise provides the following benefits:
- stronger muscles and bones
- weight control
- decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- better sleep
- greater ability to handle physical and emotional challenges
According to the American Psychological Association, children who exercise regularly and eat healthily are likely to:
- perform better academically
- feel better about themselves, their bodies, and their abilities
- cope with stress and regulate their emotions better
- avoid feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
Why is it so easy to ignore something that has so many terrific benefits? Why is it so easy to consider other things essential but not exercise?
Life can feel so busy that despite good intentions, it can be difficult to set aside the time. Unlike previous generations, you may not feel comfortable sending your children outside to play without proper supervision. Also, there are so many other sedentary activities that are competing for your children’s time and attention.
Although it can be difficult to start any new behavior, the benefits listed above offer a compelling case for putting forth the effort and making exercise/activity a priority in your children’s lives.
How Do You Get your Children to Exercise?
Model behavior – If you show that you are important enough to take care of yourself by making exercise a priority, your children are more likely to think exercise is important for them.
Listen, listen, listen – If children are negative about physical activity, listen respectfully and echo back their feelings; for example: “Exercise is difficult and there are so many other things you would rather be doing.”
Only when children feel that their concerns and their grievances are heard are they ready to hear what you have to say. Then, you can move on to the benefits of exercise, brainstorm alternative ways to get exercise, and encourage them to lead a more active lifestyle.
Once they have chosen what they want to do, support their efforts and interests.
Talk the talk – If you believe exercise is dreary, your children will also. Talk up the advantages of exercising and minimize the negatives iny our own talk – to yourself and to your children.
Find something fun – It is relatively easy to start an exercise program. It is difficult to maintain one. And it is nearly impossible to maintain a program you do not enjoy. If something is fun, a child is much more likely to want to repeat it. And remember that every child’s definition of fun is different. Some may enjoy learning to play a sport, while others may want to follow an exercise show. And others may enjoy jogging around the block, running races with friends, or jumping rope.
Exercise as a family or with friends – Exercising with a group can be more fun for some kids, increasing the likelihood that they will maintain the ‘program.’ See if you can get other families to jump on the bandwagon with you. Some kids may want to join in when they see other children and adults participating and enjoying themselves.
Decrease screen time – The more time spent in front of a computer, TV, etc, the less time is available to be physically active (or read or partake in other beneficial activities).
Reward desired behavior – It could be something big like a trip to an amusement park, or something related to exercise like a new pair of soccer shoes, or a toy or praise. Be careful with food rewards, however, especially if your child is overweight.
Brainstorm – Children are far more likely to continue to exercise if they feel like they have some say in what is going on. Call a family meeting and throw around ideas. With brainstorming, all ideas are accepted and written down. Later, those that are less practical can be altered or weeded out, but initially you don’t want to stifle creativity. At a minimum, solicit ideas from your children and make them part of the planning process.
Make sure activities are age-appropriate – If an activity is too difficult for a child, he will not enjoy it and will be less likely to try it again, even when he is older and could master the skill.
For young children, age-appropriate activities include using play to build necessary motor skills, such as kicking and throwing a ball, running, hopping, jumping, dancing, or riding a bike. For some young children, organized sports could be the way to go. Others may not yet have the necessary attention span or coordination needed to play by the “rules.” This can make sports frustrating rather than enjoyable. Know your own child’s temperament, preferences, maturity, and ability levels.
As children get older, it is important to find something they are reasonably good at since interest, enjoyment, a sense of accomplishment and ability often go together.
Give children the opportunity to be active – Take them to the playground. Try different activities: sports, dance, martial arts. Provide equipment like balls, jump ropes or bicycles. Even everyday chores can become a source of exercise, such as taking the dog for a brisk walk.
Notice them being active – “I saw you and your friends jumping rope. It looked like you were having a blast.”
Praise their improvement – “All that soccer practice seems to have paid off. You took that ball and dribbled down the field as if everyone else was standing still.” Make sure the praise is specific. Focus on the effort they exerted, their perseverance, and any growth in ability and in skills.
Schedule exercise – Schedules can get hectic. If exercise is not placed in the schedule, it is easily overlooked. Whatever form it takes, make it a routine part of your family’s week; even 3 times a week could be enough to instill the habit of exercise into your lives.
For the sake of your children’s health (and your own), exercise needs to be a priority. This takes effort, but you can do it – and even make it FUN!!!
by Karen Eble, Certified Parenting Educator
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