Dear Dr. Robyn,
We have 3 children (ages 11, 7, and 4)– and only 1 of them is really into sports. I worry that the others are going to become very unhealthy because the activities they choose to do typically don’t require them to do much physical activity. I worry about their weight, their health…everything. I don’t want to harp on them because I don’t want to make them hate getting active or make them think that I think they’re fat or they’re going to get fat (1 of them is a girl). Please give me some suggestions on how I can help them to get more active! —Lisa M., Durham, NC
Thank you for your question–
There’s so much talk about body issues these days—on the one hand, we’re dealing with what is being labeled “an obesity epidemic” and on the other hand, we’re dealing with more and more children with body image issues (both boys and girls ), eating disorders, and challenges with food. On top of that, more children are becoming lethargic and leading sedentary lifestyles —perhaps a function of new and fun technologies as much as more homework, more parents at work during the after school hours, and less “active time” during school hours due to budget cuts.
Interestingly, as children get older, their activity level drops dramatically. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health:
- Ages 9-11 years old: More than 90% of the children evaluated met the recommended level of 60 minutes of more of MVPA per day.
- Age 15: Only 31% met the recommended level of MVPA per weekday and only 17% met the recommended activity level on weekends.
Many of you who are reading this blog, like Lisa, are parents who are interested in getting their children active from a very young age. There are many studies that show us that children who are active have fewer problems with weight and body image. So how can we get our kids to love being active?
(1) Play with them: Children learn by what they see. If their parents are sitting on the sidelines, they are more likely to do so too. Get involved—bike ride with your kids—play hopscotch, jump-rope, and play ball in the back yard. Join activities with them. There are plenty of fun things you can do together! Try martial arts where family programs are prominent—or swimming programs that allow you to get in the pool with your kids. Get in touch with a Powerful Words Member School– so many of them have family programs! By getting involved in an “active way” you relay “this is important—not just for you to do, but for the family.”
(2) Get messy and dirty: If children are always afraid to get their clothes dirty, they are less likely to get active. Make sure that their play clothes are exactly that—for play. And don’t be afraid to get dirty with them! Run around—roll around—splash in puddles and get sweaty! It’s fun and your kids will enjoy, well, being kids! And don’t make the mistake that only boys should get messy—girls should too. We never want our girls to think that they can’t be as active, powerful, and strong as the boys. These sentiments get transferred to girls easily—so be sure that you are saying something empowering rather than destructive.
(3) Make the time: There are so many things to do in the day—school, homework, piano practice, family time—that it’s often difficult to make time to get active. But getting active isn’t something that should be negotiable or expendable. We need to make the time for it. Children should be active for at least an hour per day! If they don’t like competitive sports, there are plenty of other activities that will get them moving—martial arts, gymnastics, dancing and swimming are all great ways to get active without necessarily getting competitive.
(4) Let them know that you’re proud: Whether they win, lose, have a tough day, or a great day, let them know you’re proud of the way they get out there and take responsibility for keeping their bodies healthy. If we are constantly being judged on how well we did when we were active, we may be less apt to get active! Praise effort over outcome—and determination over trophies and you will be helping your child learn to love activity.
(5) Help them to set goals: It’s fun to achieve. We achieve by setting appropriate goals for ourselves and then going after them! Be warned though—make sure these are YOUR CHILD’S GOALS—not yours. And be sure that these goals are not “in comparison to” a sibling, friend, or other peers. Make your child’s physical goals something that is right for him or her—and that is completely about him or her and nobody else. This is not “the biggest loser” or “Survivor.” Your child should not get “kicked off the island” if s/he isn’t as strong, fast, or successful as anyone else.
(6) Get them active inside too: While so many technologies are linked to sitting on the couch, there are also technologies that can get kids moving. The Wii Fit and Dance Revolution are great ways to get active while inside on a rainy day– or just a day that the kids want to play with some neat technology. In fact, these games that are now being used as a source of fitness in gym classes. Studies are beginning to show that they “make a very positive contribution to players’ stress management, weight management, fitness and health.”
(7) Be innovative: Don’t love sports but love science? Go on nature walks! Prefers to history over hopscotch? Go walk the museums. Think outside the box. Sports aren’t the only way to get physical. Children can get active by gardening, dancing, jump-roping, building and painting outside. Go on camping trips or boating excursions. Splash in the rain. And again– all sports aren’t competitive with big crowds. Your child might be more interested in individual activities and sports where they can work at their own pace and make their own personal goals. Moving the body feels good– it’s just a matter of finding out what your child loves best.
(6) Don’t tie it to weight: It would be easy to do so—after all, weight is a huge issue these days. But when we tie physical activity to “exercise” and “losing weight” we make it seem like work—or punishment. That’s no fun! Children can be physically active at any size—so praise them for getting out there no matter what the scale says.
In the end, we all want our children to get active to be healthy. Our bodies need physical activity for the health of our cardio-vascular system, our muscles, our brains, and our souls. It feels good to get active. Let’s teach our children young to love getting up off the couch and moving around. It will serve them well…for the rest of their lives.