In today’s post, I’ll be continuing the conversation on good health habits kids can build now. In my previous post on the subject, I covered building the habit of eating enough fruits and vegetables. Today I’ll cover one more important habit and ways to build it so that when our kids grow up they’ll have a great foundation for living well.
Playing and Exercising Enough
Pediatricians recommend an hour of play a day. I love how with kids, it’s easy to think of exercise as play but for adults the thought of exercise can be dreadful if you’re out of the habit. Once the habit is built though, exercise is no longer a dreaded part of the day. It’s one of the best.
The same thing can be true for kids. Once the habit of getting enough exercise is built, it’s enjoyable and missed if we don’t get a chance to do it. It feels a bit like play. Something fun and that we look forward too. Imagine what’s possible if we consider exercise play for our entire lives.
But that’s a challenge in today’s society, kids are less active than they ever have been. Adults too. But I think that four things contribute to a less active lifestyle for children.
- Parents concern over safety.
- Children have more structured schedules with more activities and less free time.
- The call of screens. Computer and video game play takes a larger chunk of kid’s time and can be addictive so that kids grow to prefer these activities
- Peer pressure, especially for girls, as they grow older and their friends become less active, it’s hard to buck the system.
Taking the First Step
So how do we overcome the challenges? The first step in building this habit is to determine how active your child really is. If you ask them, they likely won’t be able to give you an accurate figure. If you take a look at your kid’s schedule you can estimate it. For example if they play sports and practice for an hour a couple times a week and they walk or bike to school for a few minutes, have physical education for a half hour twice a week, have a recess, go to the park after dinner, ride their bikes or roller skate on the weekend, pick up a game of frisbee with the family, they are probably close.
But this can take some mental work on your part. One thing you can do to get the figures in black and white so to speak is to consider a fitness tracker. I posted earlier about the Fitbit Ace here, which is a fitness tracker for kids ages 8 to 12.
So now that you’ve taken a look at how active your kids are now and found that they get 60 minutes or so most days, congratulations keep up the great work. If you don’t meet the guidelines for keeping active yourself, be sure to commit to working on it so your kids can see what an active lifestyle looks like for adults and have a model to follow.
If you find that your kids aren’t meeting the recommended level, don’t despair, there are some things you can definitely do.
First, consider the gap that you are attempting to close. Are we talking 15 minutes or 60? In my years of trying to get my own fitness goals on track, I’ve seen fitness experts and doctors recommend a gradual approach to increase physical activity and think that the same holds true for younger exercisers. This helps to avoid injury and overwhelm that can derail efforts to get healthy.
Increase activity by about 10% per week. What does that look like? Say you estimate on an average week your child gets about 2.5 hours of activity. You know they would benefit from getting 7 but you wouldn’t want to push them to get to that level overnight. Instead, you can look to add an enjoyable extra 15-minute activity once a week. After a week or two, add another until the gap is closed.
One of the easiest ways to scale up activity is to walk more. Look for opportunities to walk together. Being together makes the activity more enjoyable and kids love it. It provides a time for you to connect with one another. Let them talk, you listen. Or use the opportunity to talk about important things in a casual way. Look at your family’s schedule and see a time that you and your kids are free, lace up your shoes, and hit the neighborhood.
Another opportunity to walk can come with their school routine.
Lots of kids walk or bike to school but lots of kids are driven or dropped off in cars. If you live up to a half mile away from school, it’s a walkable distance that will take less than 15 minutes to do. If you’re concerned about safety, consider organizing or finding out if your kid’s school does a walking school bus.
As kids go through their school career, their schools are often further away. Older kids can walk longer distances safely but the buddy system is something that is great to implement. Consider whether your kids can meet and walk with their friends.
Another thing you can do is drop your kids off a little further so they can walk a couple blocks, the smallest gestures add up. You can walk with them as well to get your steps in.
Another thing I really love about walking is how it allows us to connect with nature. If you have a longer timeframe available, check out the hiking trails and parks that you have near you. Most bookstores and libraries carry books about local hiking, easy hiking, and/or hiking with kids.
Make it Social
One of the biggest challenges to being active and playing is that it works best for kids as a social activity. When you think about your childhood you probably went outside to play with the other neighborhood kids. I don’t know about you but when I go outside there is no one out there. It’s a little eery.
Do you have that challenge, or is your neighborhood full of kids playing outside? If you do have that challenge, there are a couple things you can do. I think that challenge comes from worry about safety and feeling as parents our children need constant supervision. Older children can be taught safety precautions and use the previously mentioned buddy system when you just are not able to supervise.
Those precautions can include the golden rule of not talking to strangers, being aware of surroundings, having cell phones, having a defined area that they are permitted to be, and establishing a defined amount of time they are allowed to be out. Kids can also benefit from taking self-defense classes, and there is a benefit of the old-fashioned getting to know your neighbors and asking them to look out for your children. It takes a village.
Siblings make good buddies for the buddy system but sometimes as siblings grow they would like more space from one another and sometimes age differences make it less fun for the both of them. So, you can also set up active play dates where you invite your kids friends to the park or other physical activity. Make sure you talk to your kids’ friends parents about the level of supervision they are ok with during park visits and/or other outdoor activities.
Most of our active time around outdoor activities like walking, biking, rollerskating, outdoor games that are free or very inexpensive. My kids were never really into organized sports. But organized sports and camps can be a worthwhile investment. I ask my kids every season, if there’s a sport they would like to play or a class they would like to take, their answer is usually no, maybe your kids really enjoy those and I would definitely encourage participation. It keeps them active and helps them develop friendships and loads of character traits like perseverance, patience, and sportsmanship.
If your budget allows, put your kids in an activity and tell them they have to at least try it for one season. Start them young as you can. It seems the earlier start helps develop the love of the sport. At the very least it helps them identify sports they enjoy and allows them to build the skills early to participate competitively later down the line.
Check out your city’s website to find out about local recreational activities, classes, and leagues and don’t forget Groupon as a source for introductory offers and deals for all kinds of kids activities.
Another membership you may want to consider is whether you have a local family gym or YMCA. Memberships can be affordable and the whole family can get involved in getting their activity in together. Plus, when the weather outside is bad, looking for indoor activities to keep active is a way to not lose the habits that you’ve worked hard to build.
Watch Out, Speedbumps Ahead
We’ve covered a lot of things we can do to help build the physical activity habits for our family. Here are a few things you will want to avoid doing.
Don’t make it about weight or physical appearance. Instead focus on taking care of our bodies, having fun, and how good it feels. Focus on how when we are consistent and work hard, our skills and what we are able to do improves.
Don’t be rigid. If your kids are a little shy of meeting their activity goal for a week or two, just get back on the wagon. We want to avoid the guilt cycle. It doesn’t work. It’s destructive to self-esteem.
Don’t waste time doing things they don’t enjoy. The realm of physical activity is so vast that it doesn’t make sense to force kids to do something you don’t enjoy doing. Find the activities they enjoy and do more of those.
Don’t force it. We talked earlier about increasing gradually. It’s important to stress again, this is a lifestyle thing that we want to make as natural as eating, breathing, and brushing our teeth. It should feel like a regular part of our day eventually so instead of making a big deal of exercising; invite them to do things, offer opportunities for them to do things. Crowd out their less desirable activities over time but don’t say for example, “you need to spend less time on video games, go outside and play”, because then kids will view activity as punishment.
Let’s Keep This Conversation Going
That’s it for Part II of our Good Health Habits series. Join me next week for Part III as we continue talking about equipping our kids to start on the path to health right now starting today. What are your thoughts? Tell me in the comments, what challenges you face in keeping your kids active? Are they active enough or coming up short? What are your biggest obstacles and what has worked well for your kids and family in this area?