If you enjoy an active lifestyle, it can be frustrating to parent a kid whose spirit animal seems to be the sloth. And you have good reason to be concerned. One in three kids today is overweight, and sedentary lifestyles are at an all-time high. Not only are these trends a recipe for long-term health problems, but kids who don’t learn to love exercise will miss out on a lifetime of its benefits for mental health, stress management, and self-image. So what is a parent to do? How can we foster a joy for movement in our kids? We talked to parents, pediatricians, and even a few tweens and teens and distilled their advice into five strategies.
1. It’s all about framing
When it’s time to hit the gym, do you whimper and grumble about leg day? Or do you merrily skip out the door, telling everyone you’ll be back after you’ve worked up a good sweat? Whether or not we realize it, our kids watch and absorb our attitudes about everything from new foods to new neighbors. If being active is a new ambition in your family, be intentional with how you talk about it and how you use it. Exercise should be a positive, coveted experience if your kids are going to embrace it for its own sake. So it’s important not to use it as a punishment for misbehavior, poor food choices, or too much screen time. This goes for mom and dad too. Instead, make activity the reward for good behavior. Punishment framing: You’ve been playing video games for hours. Go walk the dog. Reward framing: If you help me finish these dishes, we can all walk the dog together. Punishment framing: You need to be more active. No friends until you’ve ridden your bike thirty minutes. Reward framing: It’s been a long winter. Let’s pump up our bike tires and see how many of your friends are free to come along for a ride. The most important part of framing is keeping yourself in the picture. Teaching your kids to love activity will require a lot of investment of your time and effort. But good news—all that effort also counts toward *your* daily activity goals.
2. Tailor Your Plan to the Kid
Some of us are born athletes, with skill and grace aplenty. We find a sport we excel at, and activity is fun. Others of us have to work to find something we are reasonably competent at. If a team sport has never sparked your child’s interest, talk with them about what they do find interesting. Watch YouTube videos (they can show you how) about alternatives like free-running, speed climbing, jumping stilts, ninja warrior skills, and even Fortnite dances. If their screen has become surgically embedded in their hands, look for ways to combine the digital and physical worlds to ease them out of the house. Geocaching, local painted rock finding groups, scavenger hunts, Pokémon Go, and interactive running apps like “Zombies, Run!” are just a few examples.
3. Build Activity into Your Family’s Lifestyle
Much of today’s modern lifestyle is built around sitting still. We work, commute, recreate, and even vacation sitting down. Take a close look at your lifestyle and find opportunities to shake things up!
- Can your kids work up to walking or biking to school safely?
- Could you trade family night at the movies for an evening at a trampoline park, skating rink, or swimming pool?
- Are there errands you could do on foot or bike instead of the car?
- Could you make chores more active and fun by cranking up some music and turning dishwashing into a dance party?
- Could you plan your next vacation around exploring the great outdoors or learning a new sport?
If you’re creative, it’s possible you could lead an activity revolution without ever uttering the word “exercise”.
4. Limit Distractions & Roadblocks
Tempting though it may be to disable your WiFi, it’s unlikely to make your kids discover a love of yoga spontaneously. Instead, keep conversations about screen-time and activity separate. Rather than tracking hours of screen time, considering simply designating specific times of the day or week as screen-free. Then work on removing the other roadblocks that keep kids (and their parents) from exercising.
- Being too busy: If your child is overscheduled, look for activities you can trim to make room for more play and movement.
- Never having time: Things that make it on the calendar, get done. Designate certain days of the week for family fun that gets everyone moving.
- Not having the skills: A book, a video, a class, or a private lesson could make all the difference between being interested in a sport and being active in it.
- Not having the right stuff: It may sound frivolous but having the right workout clothes and gear helps us all feel more motivated and confident. For teens, the need to “look right” in a new situation is even greater.
- Needing a partner: Many sports require other people, but often kids also need companionship to motivate them. Be their partner, but also look at tip five for ways to start reducing their dependence on you.
5. Make it Social, Keep it Fun
Remember to keep your efforts at being a more active family closely tied to your child’s interests, developmental level, and fitness level. Once you have their attention, start working friends into the fun. Eventually, your kids and their friends won’t need you to run the show. Play to their strengths:
- Younger children have little patience for sports with complex rules. For this age, bike rides, playgrounds, and trips to the pool will hold the most appeal. Bringing a friend will help keep the fun going longer.
- Sedentary kids generally won’t enjoy exercise for exercise’s sake, so look for activities that have a payoff, like a hike that ends in a picnic near a waterfall, a trip to a trampoline park with friends, or simply the chance to bike to a place they want to visit.
- Teens may be more motivated by activities that let them spend time with friends, assert independence, or both. Look for opportunities to help them organize outings centered on an activity. A nearby hike, a night at the local rec center, laser tag, or a trip to the local pool are all excellent ideas. Older teens may even be able to join your gym, which can feel like a big step toward adulthood.
Throughout your journey to inspire a love of activity, remember to focus on the positive benefits of being active and avoid making your child’s weight a feature in your conversations. Exercise can give us a sense of wellbeing, improve our resistance to illness, and help us to stress less and sleep better. Some kids will be motivated by tracking progress in their speed, endurance, or strength. Other kids won’t. That’s ok. There are no right or wrong ways to be active as long as you’re all having fun.