Little Couch Potatoes Need a Big Boost

Genius ways of incorporating exercise into your kids' day

by Jill Kaufmann | 31 Mar 2016 at 5:22 AM

Moving. Exercise. Physical activity. Whatever you call it, people of all ages need a slice of it nearly every day for physical and emotional well-being.

This isn’t news, of course.

Every parent knows that the rise in obesity in children may lead to an increase in diabetes and heart disease later in life. Parents and professionals often discuss possible connections between anxiety, depression, ADHD, and lack of exercise or time outside. Who does not know firsthand how the magic of a brisk walk will relieve worry and frustration?

We all sing the praises of endorphins. If children are missing out on consistent exercise, their quality of life is negatively impacted, in no small way.

Remember: If one parent is obese, there’s a 50% chance the kids will be also. — The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

It’s easy to put physical activity on the back burner. The consequences of a child having poor sleep or a sugar-filled dinner are perhaps more immediate and painful to parents than skipping exercise. On the surface, exercise is the only one of these three that can be ignored for a night or two without consequences. But over time, a lack of movement becomes problematic.

If your kids are content to stay on the couch or anxious about finishing homework, getting them to move can be a battle. As adults, we may dread exercise, but we’re generally more capable of weighing the pros and cons, fretting about our cholesterol level, and ultimately finding a way to drag ourselves out the door. Kids don’t work that way.

But take heart. With the right approach, a little increase in activity might be simpler than you think.

This weekly series offers smart, practical advice on how to talk to your kids about thorny topics.

1.) To make daily exercise a habit, remove as many barriers as possible. Decide that some movement is more important than all homework, screen time, dinner, laundry and returning work emails. The reason? One quick walk can make that long list of other activities go more smoothly.

Remove the expectation that exercise is a production. A three-hour family mountain bike ride might be a great way to spend a Saturday morning, but it isn’t going to happen on a Tuesday night after work and school. Twenty minutes of dance party time in the living room might be all you get, but it is better than simply saying, “Oh, it isn’t going to happen tonight,” while your kids are glued to their screens. When you skip exercise entirely, you’re saying it is not a vital part of your life.

2.) Make a list — mental or otherwise — of things your kids do with little prompting (note "little," not none — let’s be realistic). The list may turn out longer than you think. Undoubtedly there are tasks so important to you that you've thoroughly instilled them as habits in your kids. Maybe they pack their school lunch with little fuss, or clear the dinner table before retreating to their rooms. They know not to even ask for a soda during the week. However, the fact that your kids’ good habits became routine is exactly the approach for adding a little regular fitness time.

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Once you've reflected on the habits in your house, start reflecting on the potholes that get in the way of family exercise. Are the kids too difficult to motivate? Is it impossible to find the time? Maybe you're good about hitting the gym — but the kids are left behind. What little PE or recess they may have won’t counteract a day of sitting at school, then sitting around all night at home.

Parenting is never a one-size-fits-all enterprise, so sort out your own situation.

How to Get Kids to Move
  • Sign up for a charity 5K walk/run as a family
  • Have kids teach you some of their games
  • Make dogwalking a family sport
  • Create a walk or post-dinner ritual
  • Put kids in charge of yard work
  • Have kids sign a contract to exercise
  • Use a nearby hotel pool year-round (for a fee)
  • Invite their friends to play kickball, horse, or tag

3.) Brainstorm the ways you could squeeze in a half hour or hour of exercise on a weeknight. Maybe there's a park a couple of blocks away with a disc golf course. If it's cold out at night, bundle up and take a walk anyway. Plan a mini indoor fitness camp complete with sit ups, jumping jacks and a few yoga poses. Include the kids in this process, challenging them to create fun ways to get fit. Kids love competing with Mom and Dad; why not have the whole family use fitness monitors to see who wins steps for the day?

4.) Let's find a way to ditch the word "exercise." For many people, this conjures up videos of '80s workout videos or people in cotton sweatsuits pedaling in place forever. The only goal here is to increase health and wellness by keeping bodies and brains physically active. Whether you are training for a family fun run or learning the difference between an eagle pose and down dog, you're doing well by keeping activity a priority for the whole family.

Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.

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