My husband and I have a routine of switching off between watching our toddler so that we can go and play our grown-up sports of volleyball, tennis, and boxing.
When it’s my husband’s turn, the two of them often go on a “dadventure,” which consists of my husband riding his bike, with my son in a seat attached to the handlebars, to the nearby duck pond. When it’s my turn, I usually take my son to the park so that we can run around and burn off some of that excess toddler energy. My son has gotten into the habit of telling me “Mummy, run!” at which point I’m expected to start running while he tries to catch me.
All of this juggling can be chaotic, but it’s intentional. I want my son to grow up with the knowledge that our bodies and minds are at their happiest when they get regular physical activity.
But that’s easier said than done in a world where so many of us graduate from sitting in a classroom all day, to working in an office all day, commuting back and forth by car. It’s also hard when you live somewhere that isn’t safe or accessible for walking or cycling. Add to that the general idea that physical activity isn’t “fun,” but rather a chore we do in order to achieve some body ideal; along with the hellaciously dysfunctional culture that is “kids sports.” It all combines to make it a steep, uphill battle to build positive associations with regular physical activity.
So what do you do? How do we encourage our kids to develop a healthy relationship with regular exercise? It’s a tough task, and there are certainly no guarantees of success, but here are a few strategies to consider.
Set a positive example
If your kids grow up seeing you prioritising regular, enjoyable physical activity, it’s a lesson likely to stick with them, even when you think they aren’t listening. Whatever physical activity works best for you, try to find a way to carve out time for it, and strive to approach it in a way that’s balanced and sustainable.
Make it a family activity
For younger kids, this is a little easier, as they’re often more amenable to doing activities with their parents. For older teenagers, this can be harder. However, if you can establish a regular schedule of a physical activity, like Saturday morning frisbee games, Sunday afternoon hikes, or jogging the annual Turkey Trot, even the sulkiest teenager will probably come along at times.
Find a way to work physical activity into your family’s schedule
Having a regular, predictable schedule is a good way to establish long-term habits. Unfortunately, that can be hard in a world where adults have a hard time detaching from work, while kids are often over scheduled and bogged down with homework.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, both as a parent and a person, is that when I don’t carve out the time, my mental health and energy levels take a nosedive. I’ve also learned the hard way that when my son doesn’t get enough daily activity, he gets cranky and is more likely to act out. As tough as it is to carve out that time, it’s definitely worth it.
Find something that aligns with their interests
If you have a teenager that just wants to play video games, or a child who believes they aren’t cut out for sports, the right answer isn’t to push them into doing something they hate. (That’s likely to backfire.) But there’s likely some forms of physical activity they might enjoy.
One way to encourage your kids is to find an activity that aligns with their interests. This could take the form of having them take dance lessons to get better at theatre, or take up running to develop lung power for playing a wind instrument, or having them train in martial arts under the guise of developing faster reflexes for their video games. Whatever your kid enjoys, see if there’s a physical activity that is related in some way to that interest.
For kids who hate sports, there are alternatives
For the kid who doesn’t like sports, it can be a good idea to find out why. Is it because they’re turned off by a hyper-competitive atmosphere? Are they afraid of playing in front of others? Have they just not found the right sport yet?
If they just don’t want to play a team sport, you can see if there’s an individual sport they might enjoy better, like swimming, running, skating, or skateboarding. If that’s also not their thing, there’s also a lot to be said for encouraging free play, whether it’s shooting hoops, jumping rope, or just riding a bike.