When runner Shannon Brady returns home from the race with more distance to cover: Her daughters, ages 1 and 2, borrow her sweaty sunglasses and “run their own race” around the house. “My husband and I are avid runners and we make sure they (our daughters) see us bonding and having fun doing it,” says Brady.
Like Brady, many parents want to pass the joy of fitness on to their children. This was shown by a survey conducted in 2022 by the fitness brand Life Time 89 percent of parents enjoyed spending time in outdoor recreation and sports with their children, while 80 percent said they would like to encourage their youngsters to do more physical activity to build their children’s fitness. So how does foster a love of movement in the next generation?
This is a critical question because there is evidence to suggest that our current approach to raising active children may not be working. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children ages 6 to 17 exercise at least one hour a daybut only about 24 percent of children meet this criterion. Children’s fitness regimes are slowly declining in the years after the pandemic1, although the physical benefits of the activity are undeniable. Exercising from a young age can prevent heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis, among other health problems. And when it comes to the mental side of things, regular exercise was found2 to reduce anxiety, improve mood and improve self-esteem and cognitive function, and also help children cope with stress3.
However, when it comes to instilling a love for running, cycling, swimming and other activities in our young people, clinical health psychologist Sarah-Nicole Bostan, Ph.D, says it’s more about teaching them to love the feeling than what exercise can “do” for them. “Teaching children to appreciate their bodies and all the possibilities that a strong, agile body provides—regardless of weight or shape—lays the foundation for a lifelong positive relationship with movement, even in a world where the emphasis is often misplaced on physical performance or appearance,” she says.
Shape your kids’ fitness mindset
Here are four ways parents can instill a positive attitude towards movement in their children.
1. Be an example
Research shows this children imitate their parents4 practice new skills and act in society. So a child who sees his parents moving may be inspired to join. “According to the theory of social learning, children mainly acquire new behaviors through observation and imitation,” explains Dr. Bostan. “This means that caregivers are not doing their children a favor by skipping their own self-care or daily movement routines. In fact, children will learn if they are invited to be active participants (in sports) and allowed to see what happens in a healthy relationship with exercise.”
How you talk about your daily amount of movement also affects modeling fitness for your child. If you’re hoping to raise a human being who likes to sweat, talk about why your love can go far. Just keep track of exercise values (instead of metrics). For example, “I love how free I feel when I’m swimming in the pool.”
Molly Prospect, a runner who lives in Hartford, Connecticut, brings her 18-month-old son to watch races, including his dad’s marathons. “We try to make him an active participant in the marathon process, whether it’s supporting his husband in training, going to an exhibition or ringing the cowbell on race day,” she says.
But you don’t have to run 26.2 miles to show your child the power of sports. In addition to following her races, Brady also makes sure her daughters have plenty of role models on the move to show what fitness can look like for kids at all ages. “Whenever we can, we take them to local high school girls’ volleyball and basketball games,” says Brady. “They’re only about 30 minutes at the moment, but I think it’s important and fun for them to see the other girls being active and working as a team together.”
2. Make the movement playful and flexible
While there are certainly valuable lessons in taking sports seriously — such as the importance of resilience, dedication and showing up for teammates — emphasizing movement as a game ultimately creates a lifelong love of sweating5. And the latter outcome is what will ultimately support a healthy relationship with movement. “Sometimes children who are naturally athletic are encouraged to engage in hobbies that allow for more movement, while children who may not appear to be athletic—or show difficulties with balance, coordination, and speed—are discouraged from participating in organized sports,” says Dr. .Bostan. “In reality, both groups will benefit from daily exercise.”
Pediatrician Sarah Lester, mother of four children ages 16 to 22, believes that sports practice should feel like a series of games (especially before they enter middle school). “Ultimately, these games result in a lot of movement,” she points out. “If you tell a young kid to go out and run a mile, it’s going to be a rare kid who comes back for more.” On the other hand, games like capture the flag, jumping ropeand ants we have a log everything encourages running and agility without the pressure of formal sports.
Do you have a budding dancer at home? Try this fun hip-hop routine with your kids:
This joy-receiving mentality also applies to the type of exercise children choose. While it can be tempting to encourage your child to imitate any movement that speaks to you, it’s important to let them mess around – and discard things that don’t interest them. “You never know what kids are going to like, and often the social part of the movement is the part they really want,” says Lester. “This could be the end of the season. It can be the beginning of a new passion.”
3. Avoid creating a “move against the screen” mentality.
“As a parent, the challenge today is to find a balance between physical activity and the allure of technology,” he says Hi Rosariodirector of outdoor and children’s footwear in Hoka, who helped design the brand’s children’s sneakers. “One great thing about the pandemic has been that it’s really forced families to get outside, whether it’s a simple family walk to exercise the pooches or going on a hike to get a little sweaty. In many ways, families were directed to find ways to keep their mental, emotional and physical health in check.”
As children’s lives become increasingly intertwined with screens, it’s important to prioritize family outings while maintaining a neutral dialogue about technology. “Meeting children where they are is key to creating healthy habits that will stick, as well as praising efforts early and often, regardless of the outcome,” says Dr. Bostan. For example, she says if your child likes video games, you might want to introduce a “live-action outdoor video game” and invite their friends. Kids fitness video games it can also be a great way to integrate screen and motion.
What you don’t want to do is create an antagonistic relationship with positioning technology technology as a “bad” thing and exercise as a “good” thing. Over time, this approach could lead to your child using screen time as a “reward” and fitness as a “punishment.” Instead, encourage your child to participate in a wide range of appropriate activities, both online and in person.
4. Don’t force it
Point: You can’t make someone enjoy something. All you can do is introduce your child to an activity and see how they react. Although Prospect’s son is less than 2 years old, she has already thought about what she will do if he doesn’t have the same passion for sports that she does. “I think I would respect his decision, but I would remind him that movement usually makes us all feel good,” she says. “I would encourage him to go for a walk with me or to throw a ball for the dog. Any way to encourage movement without explicitly saying, ‘You have to move.'”
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Neville, Ross D., et al. ‘Global changes in physical activity in children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic: a systematic review and meta-analysis’. JAMA Pediatrics, flight. 176, no. 9, September 2022, p. 886–894, https://doi.org10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.2313.
Sharma, Ashish et al. “Exercise for Mental Health.” Associate of Primary Health Care Journal of Clinical Psychiatry flight. 8.2 (2006): 106. doi:10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a
Hanke, Manuel et al. “Moderate to vigorous physical activity and reactivity to acute psychosocial stress in preadolescent children.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports flight. 26.9 (2023): 487-492. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2023.07.010
Sutherland, Lisa A et al. “Like parent, like child: Children’s food and drink choices during role play.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine flight. 162.11 (2008): 1063-9. doi:10.1001/archpedi.162.11.1063
Lakićević, Nemanja et al. “Make fitness fun: can novelty be a key determinant of adherence to physical activity?” Frontiers in psychology flight. 11 577522. October 15, 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.577522