These days, it might seem like all your kids want to do is sit behind a screen.
But study after study shows that kids—and adults, too—need to sit less and move more.
When parents are up against the likes of Netflix and PlayStation, what can they really do to instill in their children a love of exercise—and also raise them to keep that mindset into adulthood?
Experts say kids should get 60 minutes of heart-pumping exercise every day. Even though that hour can be divided up piecemeal, many kids still fall far short of that guideline.
But there are plenty of great methods for making these fitness goals more achievable.
Here are some helpful tips:
Be an example
Both Silver and Kim Delafuente, an exercise physiologist for Spectrum Health, said the most important thing an adult can do to influence a child’s attitude toward exercise is set a good example with their own actions.
“It really starts with modeling and the environment that’s being provided,” Silver said. “Kids are learning from what they see their parents doing.
“Are you coming home from work and watching TV or are you going for a walk? There are studies that show that kids with active parents are more likely to be active themselves as adults.”
Whether it’s organized team sports or an impromptu game of tag in the backyard, show your kids the many ways they can be active. When they’re young, that means just helping them discover the ways their body can move, Silver said.
As they get older, they might want to try different team sports.
“They can develop a like or a love over time, but they’re definitely not going to do it if they’re not exposed to it,” Silver said.
If they don’t like sports, or if finances prevent that option, show them other ways they can exercise.
Sometimes they can get moving with chores, such as walking the dog or mowing the lawn. Go for a walk or a bike ride together. Walk to school or to the bus stop instead of driving. Park farther from the store and walk briskly through the parking lot.
“Try to make things fun and be creative,” Silver said. “So, you might say, ‘Let’s play a game of tag,’ versus, ‘We’re going to go for a run.’”
When you talk about exercise with your kids, keep it positive.
“This is a huge struggle for us as adults because there’s just a lot of negative language around exercise,” Delafuente said. “We need to frame physical activity as positive.”
If you often say you’re too tired to exercise or it’s too much work, your children will pick up on that.
“The whole attitude of having to do it makes it feel like one more checkpoint during the day, so it becomes a chore,” Delafuente said. “Change that mindset from it being something you have to do to something you get to do.”
Talk to your kids about the good things that can come from an active lifestyle.
Delafuente and Silver referred to studies that show the benefits of an active lifestyle for children, including better body image, higher academic performance and improved mental health.
They encourage parents to help children connect exercise to good things.
After your child has engaged in a physical activity, for example, ask them how they feel.
“I do that kind of thing with adults,” Delafuente said. “I ask them: ‘Tell me how you felt after you went for that 10-minute walk?’ Ninety percent of the time it’s going to be a positive response like, ‘It cleared my head,’ or, ‘I felt better, less stressed.”
And don’t make exercise about losing weight.
“Research shows that when kids are physically active, they have a better body image,” Delafuente said. “They think, ‘I’m strong’ and ‘I can play.’ That all trickles into self esteem as well.
“It’s nothing about weight, but just about feeling good about what their body can do,” Delafuente said. “People tend to equate exercise with losing weight, but they don’t equate it with the multiple other health benefits from it.”
You don’t need an expensive gym membership or fancy equipment to create a love for an active lifestyle.
“You just need to be creative,” Silver said.
There are more organized activities available to kids today than in previous generations—but studies show children are still engaging in fewer physical activities.
“They just need to play,” Silver said. “The ultimate goal is to reduce sedentary time, reduce screen time and increase moving time each day.”
“For me, a lot of it is just getting back to basics,” she said. “We have jumped in as adults and taken away those natural ways of movement and tried to replace it with structured movement. Playing is really a kid’s exercise.”
It will take some work, but the benefits should pay out in the end when children grow up to be healthy, exercise-loving adults.