Turning Kids on to Fitness
If you think a couple of walks a week equals family fitness, consider this: The American Heart Association recommends that children and adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. For adults, the recommendation is a minimum of 30 minutes at least five days a week.
Don’t Have Time, You Say?
The trick is to weave fitness into your daily routine and make it fun, says Debi Pillarella, youth spokeswoman for the American Council on Fitness. “Keep it play-based-that’s what kids understand,” she says. “And don’t think of it as an add-on to your day. Exercise should be part of your day, like washing your face. It’s just what you do.”
Set a good example yourself. Limit television time in your home and think of easy ways to get moving together. After dinner, take a family walk. The next night, take along a Frisbee or have a race down the block.
Whatever you do, make it “kid driven,” says Susan Kalish, author of Your Child’s Fitness: Practical Advice for Parents (Human Kinetics, 1995). Let your kids physically take the lead on a walk and stop to look at tadpoles or whatever along the way. Kids are motivated if an activity is fun, if it’s their choice, and if they are sharing the experience with family or friends.
On the weekend, ask kids if they’d rather canoe, go on a hike, or cross-country ski. When kids are part of the plan, it challenges their creative thinking and builds confidence.
You’ll be even more successful when you customize your approach to your child’s age.
Make It Playful
Little kids have boundless energy and being active is natural. They are learning about the world around them through movement, and they love unstructured or imaginary play.
Instead of signing up for organized sports, build strength and flexibility though free play, Pillarella suggests. “Let kids be kids,” she says. Put on music and dance. Act out animal movements or sounds. Pretend you are Peter Pan and think of activities to match the storyline.
Preschoolers are ready to learn some basic athletic skills, such as throwing, catching, and skipping, but they should be introduced in a fun way without being pushed too hard. Simply playing tag or hopscotch or batting around a balloon can teach kids balance and hand-eye coordination.
Going to a playground lets kids make decisions on their own, test their limits of climbing or swinging, and develop basic motor skills. Instead of sitting on the bench, be an active role model and join them on the monkey bars or the slide.
Let Kids Sample Sports
By this age, kids can grasp the rules of the game, handle more instruction, and begin team sports. They’ll start to ask for help with their baseball swing or perfecting their diving position. Now they are developing fine motor skills.
“Make sure your children are provided with a smorgasbord of activities,” says Kalish. “Let them try things, even if it is something you don’t like.” They may dabble in T-ball, basketball or soccer before they find their niche. They are more likely to stick with an activity they like.
Not all kids are sports-oriented or cut out to be on a team, Pillarella adds. Around age 8, stronger athletes emerge, leaving the less adept players on the sidelines or quitting. As an alternative, kids this age may enjoy individual sports, such as martial arts, swimming, or just being active riding a scooter or skateboard. And some activities, such as dance and gymnastics, can be enjoyed competitively or simply as hobbies.
Leverage Their Independence
As kids hit the preteen years, their changing bodies often feel awkward. This can lead to fitness injuries and self-consciousness about their athletic performance. As a result, some become inactive.
Kids this age want to exert their independence and may try nontraditional sports. “Let them branch out on their own,” Kalish says. Support them in rock climbing, inline skating or whatever activity they find hip and attractive. Or try something new together, such as a yoga class.
Now more than ever, staying active will be cool if a friend is along. Your child might stay on a basketball team if her friend plays, too, or be more likely to join in a family bike ride when she can invite a friend along.
Finding an activity that your child can master will enhance his self-image as he transitions into his teen years. You’ll be helping establish a foundation for lifelong fitness.