It’s easy to see why children and exercise are no longer synonymous. Gone are the days when kids had an hour of P.E. in school, and were able to safely run around their neighborhood for hours on end. There is tremendous pressure on children to do well in reading, math and science, while the creative and physical curriculum has been drastically cut and even removed from schools. There’s also a wealth of distractions that make it easy NOT to exercise, including smart phones, video games, and on-demand television. But there are still many ways to cultivate a positive exercise relationship with the children in your life. Let’s explore a few of them.
1. Model the Behavior
At an early age, children do what you do, not what you say. If you tell a child to clean their room, but you never clean your room, then they will have a hard time seeing the importance of that task. Sure they can be made to do it “because you say so,” but they will not assign any intrinsic value to the activity.
The same goes for exercise. If parents and adults don’t have a joyful exercise practice, it will be harder for your children to naturally love exercise and want to do it. So before telling your kids to exercise more, look at the exercise practices in your own life. (In Dynamic Eating Psychology the word exercise can be a trigger, as for some it is associated with something we have to do, so for the rest of this article, it will be interchanged with the word movement, because that encompasses a wide range of activities that are beneficial to body and soul.)
Do you make time for movement each day? Do you invite your child(ren) to join you in various movement activities? Do you go for family walks outside when the weather allows? Do you turn on the music and just dance for fun? If you dread movement and activity, and would much rather hop on the couch, then your child will learn that behavior.
It’s not easy to make time for movement. It takes planning and effort, but the rewards are amazing. We all have busy schedules so there are days where it may not happen, but make that the exception, not the rule. For older kids, use a calendar to block out “movement” time. Start with a few days a week and build on that. Plan family hikes, dog walking, time at the local pool, or even a sit-up contest. On busy days, just do a 15 minute walk after dinner, and on the weekends or when time permits plan a longer excursion. Ask your kids to plan a monthly family day that involves movement.
Make it fun and something to look forward to. This is a practice that is best to start as early in life as possible. It should be an established habit before the teen years, but it’s never too late to start!
2. Encourage but Don’t Require Sports Participation
Sports is an incredible way for children to build activity and fitness into their lives. Most communities have access to sports programs for children of all ages through schools, recreation centers and boys and girls clubs. While some kids are born with natural love and talent for certain sports, many children need encouragement and patience when trying out new sports.
Parents who grew up playing football for their high school or college team will naturally encourage their young son to play football. Who doesn’t want to raise the next Eli Manning? But dedicating your child at an early age to one sport can be dangerous, they can quickly “burn out” on that activity and reject sports all together.
Discuss all the different sports activities available. While team sports such as soccer, basketball, football and lacrosse are great, there are many individual sports opportunities such as dance, tennis, golf, running, and even archery. The options are endless. At an early age, take your child to different games and parks to observe all the action. Find relatives, friends or even older siblings who are participating in a sport and support them by watching their games and events.
This is a great way to be involved in your community and allow your child to be part of a group. But be respectful of your child’s individual comfort level in sports. Not all kids have the personality for team sports, or possess the natural athletic acumen to participate at competitive levels. And that is totally okay. There are plenty of ways to incorporate healthy exercise habits without sports.
3. Discover Your Kid’s Unique Fitness Type
For adults and kids, loving movement and exercise is a lifelong journey. Just like they grow out of the “I hate vegetables” phase, their needs and likes for different activities will change over time. So for the child who won’t eat their broccoli, experts suggest continually inviting them to have just one bite. This retrains taste buds and some children will even begin to love broccoli! The same goes for movement: continue to offer a variety of activities and invite participation so your child will develop preferences for different things.
Here are some movement activities that can be done instead of, or in addition to, sports:
-Dance or Movement Video games
-Exercise Videos (there are tons of apps and Youtube videos to try!)
Teach your child to get “in their body” when doing activities. Ask them how it makes them feel before, during and after. Movement can dramatically build body confidence, especially in girls. Are they feeling stronger, do they have more energy, are they looking forward to doing that activity again?
Kids should be respected and allowed to have their own likes and dislikes around exercise.
Avoid comparison and perfection. Their relationship with exercise will change and evolve over time, and you can be there to support this process.
This leads us to our final tip on kids and exercise:
4. Don’t Associate Exercise with Weight or Body Image
The diet industry has co-opted exercise as a primary factor in weight loss. But studies on exercise’s effectiveness for long term weight loss are mixed. However, research does support the benefits of exercise for overall health regardless of weight. Regular movement can reduce anxiety and depression, improve brain function, raise metabolism, promote sleep, and improve cardiovascular function, just to name a few.
In the field of Mind Body Nutrition, we teach that joyful movement is a practice that enhances your health and creates a positive body image. Exercise should not be directly associated with weight loss or changes in body composition. A disordered relationship between body, food and exercise can occur if too much pressure is placed on kids to exercise in order the change their body’s appearance or to lose weight.
Here at the Institute, we believe healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. We as a culture should teach our children to love movement and exercise for the sake of overall health and wellbeing. The so-called childhood obesity epidemic is creating more stress around exercise and weight in our youth. Finding physical activities that you truly enjoy is a soul enhancing experience and should be celebrated on its own.
It’s time to change our mindset around exercise. Instead of viewing it as a chore or stressing out about getting in your 60 minutes today, make space to find movement you love, and help the kids in your life find movement they love and enjoy! You don’t have to be a top athlete to benefit from exercise. It all starts with just one step!
If you want to learn more about this topic, and how to create healthy exercise and eating habits in your community, consider our Eating Psychology Coach Training.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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