Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled among kids in all age groups. How can you keep your child from joining the obesity epidemic? Keeping a child healthy and fit means keeping them active. Ideally, you can do that both at home and in activities at gyms, health clubs, and in after-school sports. But what if your child won’t set foot in a gym or participate in school sports? Here’s how to keep your child fit and active, happily and safely.
Make Time for Fitness and Family
The best way to get your child active is to be active yourself, says Brian Grasso, founder and CEO of the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA). “If Mom and Dad aren’t active, the kids won’t be either.” He recommends setting aside as little as 15 minutes a day for “family fitness time,” just like homework time, dinnertime, and bath time.
Children do best in a “free play” environment where they can explore movement on their own, Grasso advises. So “family fitness time” doesn’t mean an organized program of jumping jacks and calisthenics. Instead, depending on your child’s age and abilities, you could try:
- Simon Says. Make sure to include a lot of hopping on one foot, stretching and reaching, and jumping up and down.
- Obstacle courses. In your backyard (or in the basement if the weather is bad), set up an obstacle course with balls, cones and hula hoops.
- “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.” Pick up the great book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, and stage a “bear hunt” through your house, up and down stairs, lifting your feet high through “swishy swashy” grass and fighting against the mud pits and snowstorm.
- Nerf or related games. Grasso plays army games using Nerf guns with his sons, 6 and 4, pretending to crawl through the jungle.
Experts agree that the goal is to make fitness fun and creative. “The key thing is that it shouldn’t look like fitness from an adult’s perspective. It has to be fun,” says Grasso. “You’re not an aerobics instructor. Take turns copying each other. Once you tie physical activity to fun in a child’s brain, then it becomes part of their life. The two keys are that it must be fun, and it must be movement-oriented.”
What if your children are a bit older and you haven’t exactly made “family fitness time” a part of their lives? It’s not too late to start, and you can start slow.
“Your first couple of weeks of family fitness time shouldn’t last more than a minute or two, because it’ll feel like a chore,” says Grasso. “If you’re happy and laughing about it for a couple of minutes, then the next night you can make it four minutes, and so on.”
So what should you do with older kids who are beyond Simon Says? Try more contemporary fitness activities. Push-ups may be daunting for an inactive child, so try making it a game instead.
“Put the whole family in push-up positions, holding it at the top, forming a circle,” says Grasso. “Then have one child take a pillow or Nerf ball with their right hand, balancing on just their feet and left hand, and throw it to Mom.” The game continues around the circle. Or you can stack a pile of spoons to one child’s left, and have them use their right hand to reach across their body and stack the spoons, one by one, on their right side. Then move them back to the other side.
“You’ll build amazing strength that way, and kids enjoy doing games like that with Mom and Dad,” Grasso says.
If your kids love video games, it can’t hurt to add active games like Wii Sports or Dance Dance Revolution to their rotation. “Our studies have looked at the physiological benefits of these games, and they do provide some moderate intensity exercise,” says Jessica Matthews, continuing education coordinator for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “It shouldn’t be your only physical activity, but if it replaces more sedentary games, that’s great.”
In the Gym and Beyond
What about taking your child to the gym? Can you? Should you? What should they do there?
Gyms vary as to at what age they will admit children, Matthews says. “Some will let kids come in at 12 or 13, while others won’t allow them to work out until 17 or 18. Some facilities, though, are offering more and more programs geared towards youth.” (Try YMCA facilities in your area; they usually offer plenty of youth programs.) “In any case, your consent will be required if the child is under 18.”
When your child starts a program at a gym, it’s important to understand that kids aren’t mini-adults. They’re physiologically different, with a higher breathing frequency and a higher heart rate. “You can’t just take an adult program at a gym and give it to the child as is,” says Matthews.
That doesn’t mean kids can’t do some of the things adults do, like strength training. “Research has shown that strength training can be safe and effective for kids and adolescents, if you follow appropriate training guidelines,” says Matthews. (ACE has guidelines for strength training programs for young people.)
But kids shouldn’t use weight machines to strength train, says Grasso. “They can be disastrous for kids. Sitting at a machine to produce force doesn’t ask your body to stabilize itself; it lets the machine do it for you. That can be damaging and injury-causing for a child.”
Fitness for All Ages
Involvement in sports and after-school activities is a great way to get your child moving, says Matthews. Just be sure to work with your child to choose something they want, not just something you think they should do. “Many programs will allow you to do a trial class and see if your child likes it, so you’re not saying, ‘I just spent all this money on swimming lessons—what do you mean you hate it?’” she says.
For very young children, Grasso is a big fan of tumbling programs like Little Gym and Gymboree. “I believe every child should be exposed to some kind of tumbling program,” he says.
Other activities he recommends for all-around fitness include:
- Martial arts. “It gives you the same balance and strength as tumbling, plus there’s a discipline component.”
- Soccer. “In the U.S., we work a lot on hand coordination but not so much with our feet. Using your feet in soccer promotes balance that will serve you for a lifetime.
- Swimming. “It’s non-weight-bearing and allows for a lot of free movement.”
- The American Council on Exercise recommends introducing your child to strength training slowly. It’s a good idea to underestimate rather than overestimate your child’s strength and abilities. Focus first on developing good form and learning the basics of strength training.
- Make family exercise more practical by scheduling it right after school or before weekend chores. Having a set exercise time helps your child develop solid habits.
What you shouldn’t do is focus your child on one activity and exclude others. “Kids are specializing in sports way too young these days. You wouldn’t have your child take only math class and skip history, English, art and science,” he says. “Sports should be seasonal. By getting involved in a variety of activities, you develop amazing functional skills that last a lifetime.”