8 Ways to Get Kids to Exercise
With seemingly limitless energy, children should be models of physical fitness. Yet in today’s world it can be hard to persuade a kid to exercise for 10 minutes, let alone the hour a day recommended by the government. That’s a problem: According to a 2014 survey by the nonprofit National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, only a quarter of U.S. kids between the ages of 6 and 15 are at least moderately active for an hour daily on at least five days a week.
It may seem easier to let reluctant kids remain sedentary, but exercise’s benefits are too great to overlook. Physical activity in children reduces the risk of obesity and is linked to a lower risk for heart disease in adulthood and type 2 diabetes in childhood or adulthood. It improves bone health, motor control, mental health, and well-being. Studies have also shown that active kids do better in school.
Understanding that exercise leads to good health won’t necessarily motivate kids to get moving. That’s partially because modern technologies make for very strong distractions. “As soon as your child walks out the door, the world is making it extremely easy for your child to be overweight,” says Melinda Sothern, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Louisiana State University School of Public Health and author of Trim Kids: The Proven 12-Week Plan That Has Helped Thousands of Children Achieve a Healthier Weight.
So how can you pry your child’s fingers from the video game controller and get him or her to exercise? Read on for eight ways to motivate kids to move.
1. Make It Fun
Young children tend to get physical in short bursts of activity. A 2013 study published in the journal Obesity found that most children exercise in spurts that average less than five minutes. Sothern says that for children under 12, intermittent play (such as a game of tag) is ideal and may prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes. And “play” is the important word—young kids don’t want to work out or exercise; they want to have fun.
2. Take It Outside
Indoor activities can make kids sweat, but for the best workouts, bring them outdoors. “Outdoor play is associated with every health benefit there is for children,” says Sothern. Kids who live near parks, for instance, are five times less likely to be overweight than kids who don’t live near green spaces.
Kids exercise harder and longer when they play outdoors, so encourage them to participate in a soccer game, run around a playground, or ride a bike around the neighborhood. Even quieter activities such as gardening count as exercise.
3. Plan for Rainy Days
For young children, Sothern suggests creating an “imagination station” in your home filled with toys for indoor play. Even the most basic activity can spike kids’ heart rates: Blow up a few balloons, then tell children to make sure they don’t touch the ground.
Certain video games, such as Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution, can get kids’ hearts pumping. Older kids can follow along with exercise videos. And everyone can dance. “For children, it’s one of the best activities there is,” Sothern says.
4. Set Goals
Sedentary children may not be able to go from zero to 60 minutes of exercise in one day. Help your child get used to physical activity by setting weekly goals together and upping them each week.
5. Ban Tech for a Day
Is technology stealing the spotlight from physical activity? Steal it back. Parents whose children are glued to their cell phones and computers may need to establish tech-free times dedicated to exercise. For instance, if Wednesdays are designated exercise days, encourage kids to turn off electronic devices once they walk in the door.
6. Be Sensitive to Insecurities
All kids can exercise, but not everybody feels comfortable being physically active. Being aware of your child’s worries and fears can help you suggest an appropriate activity. Uncoordinated children, for instance, may resist sports such as football or volleyball but excel at track. Other kids may not know or understand the rules of a game and be too embarrassed to join in. (Solution: Teach them or look for a fun activity beyond organized sports, such as rock climbing.)
Overweight and obese kids face extra insecurities. Some may have been teased about their weight while others may feel they’re not physically suited for athletics. In such cases, parents can find sports that don’t require a certain physique (such as biking).
Overweight or obese kids may need to lose weight before they can join a sports team. Sothern suggests martial arts. “It includes strength. It includes aerobics. It includes stretching. The way it’s structured teaches self-discipline. It teaches balance,” she says. “I’ve had several patients take up martial arts, and it really improved their weight.”
7. Avoid Nagging
Nothing will turn a child off to physical activity quicker than a parent harping on exercise. Aside from being annoying, even well-intentioned lectures can make children feel bad about themselves. That’s why Sothern tells parents to avoid words such as “fat,” “thin,” and “obese,” sticking with “fit” and “healthy” instead. “You want to use words linked to health,” she says.
Once kids find activities they enjoy, avoid negative comments that can hurt feelings.
8. Be Active, Too
You can encourage your child to be active, but if you’re sedentary, your kids probably will be, too. There are countless ways parents can get moving with their kids: going on walks, playing catch, going for a family bike ride. “The No. 1 determinant of child activity is parent activity,” says Sothern. “If the parents are physically active, the child will be physically active.”
Fit and Fun
Ways to encourage kids to exercise
- Create a scavenger hunt around your home
- Go for a family hike
- Do indoor rock climbing
- Walk around an amusement park
- Have a dance party
- Go geocaching (a GPS-enabled treasure-hunt game)
- Plant and tend to a garden
- Fly a kite
- Play flag football
Read about inspiring athletes with diabetes at diabetesforecast.org/PWD.