Raise Active Kids When You’re Inactive

It's not too late to change your family's approach to fitness.

Reviewed by David Ludwig, MD, PhD on January 14, 2012

Raising an active kid isn't easy for any parent in the age of Xbox and Facebook. If you were a kid who hated gym class and are now an adult who hates the gym, you may find it especially challenging to help your child become more active. You know it's important for her health and psychological well-being, but you don't feel that it's something you can do.

You can do it, however. There are many ways to be physically active beyond traditional sports or gym exercises. You don't have to be a champion athlete to boost your child's motivation to exercise. You just need to be a little creative and willing to try moving again yourself.

Even if your children are teens, it's not too late. "There's always an opportunity for your family to start fresh, become more active, and get healthier together," says psychologist Susan Bartell, PsyD, an expert in child and parenting and the author of Dr. Susan's Fit and Fun Family Action Plan.

These expert tips can help you conquer the challenges of helping your child get fit -- and may improve your own health along the way.

Becoming a More Active Parent: Where to Start

Here's a no-sweat way to begin: Turn off the TV. A 2010 study found that parents who watched two or more hours of TV per day were more likely to have kids who also watched TV for hours. Other studies have linked kids' TV viewing to them having a higher body mass index (BMI) or higher weight compared to their height.

The next step is to start exercising yourself. "Active parents have a definite edge over sedentary parents because they serve as role models," says Debi Pillarella, MEd, a hospital fitness program director in Munster, Ind.

Getting into the exercise groove isn't easy, especially if you haven't hit the gym in a while. It's OK to go slowly. Try to gradually introduce more activity into your day. Set achievable goals, such as a 10-minute walk at lunch, and build up from there. "If you try to do too much at once, you're going to be turned off, and you'll turn off your kids as well," Bartell says.

Also think about what keeps you from moving more. Is it lack of time, motivation, or skill? These strategies can help:

  • Schedule time to exercise. You're more likely to be active if you've planned ahead.
  • Choose enjoyable and easy-to-do activities. Walking, for example, doesn't require any extra equipment or special skills.
  • Take a class. Learning something new can increase your motivation to exercise.

Getting Kids to Exercise: Have Fun

When it comes to kids, "Exercise should be a treat," says Sarah Hampl, MD, a pediatrician at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo. Hampl runs an obesity treatment program there for children ages 2 through 12. "Kids like to have fun, and they like to have a choice about what they do," she says. Offer your children a variety of options, from playing Frisbee or skateboarding to horseback riding or team sports. Let them figure out which ones they truly enjoy.

For family time in the evening or on weekends, Hampl suggests picking activities for kids that everyone can do. Go for a bike ride, play catch, or shoot hoops. Keep it carefree and low-key, rather than overly serious or competitive.

Be creative about slipping some spontaneous activity into your routine. Offer a "commercial challenge" to get kids up off the couch during TV. See who can hop on one foot the longest or run the fastest during the commercial breaks. Or put on music and dance while you're doing household chores.

Activities for Kids: Little Ones, School-Aged, and Teens

Whatever your kids' ages, they're not too young -- or too old -- to get in on the fun as long as you offer activities that are right for their age. Here are some suggestions.

Young kids:

  • Make a walk into an adventure. "Have family members take turns calling out a different type of walk every half-block," says Pillarella. For example, you could skip, take giant steps, or walk like an elephant.
  • Play simple, active games. Kids naturally like to play. Remember the games you liked when you were a little kid? Chances are, your child will also like a brisk game of Simon says, hide-and-go-seek, red light-green light, or ring-around-the-rosy, Hampl says.

School-age kids:

  • Consider a class or team. "This is a good age to start some structured activity," Bartell tells WebMD -- whether it’s a dance class, Little League baseball, or a school team sport. "Don’t just drop them off and leave every time," she says. "Watch them and cheer them on sometimes. Let them know you’re excited for them."
  • Encourage active after-school play. "When friends come over, tell them the rule for play dates is no TV or computer," Bartell says. Send kids outside and let their imaginations set the pace of play.


  • Limit screen time. Bartell recommends limiting home use of cells phones, TVs, and computers (except for homework) to a total of two hours a day. If your teen is very attached to electronics, slowly reduce the time. You need to come up with a plan that works for your family.
  • Get away for the day. An active family day trip is a great way to spend time with older kids, says Bartell. Hike at a state park, cycle a nearby trail, or canoe around a lake. Make it a group trip -- at this age, Bartell says, teens may be more enthusiastic about coming with you if they can bring a friend along.

Raising active kids when you're not used to being active doesn't have to be difficult. It just takes a different mind-set than you're used to. Be open to the everyday exercise opportunities around you and enjoy them. "The most successful families are those who are in it together for the long haul," Pillarella says.

Show Sources

Susan Bartell, PsyD, author, Dr. Susan's Fit and Fun Family Action Plan; psychologist, Port Washington, N.Y.

Jago, R. BMC Public Health, April 15, 2010; vol 10: art. 194.

Debi Pillarella, MEd, fitness program director, Community Hospital Fitness Pointe, Munster, Ind.

Sarah Hampl, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; pediatrician and medical director, PHIT Kids (Promoting Health in Teens and Kids) obesity treatment program, Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, Kansas City, Mo.

CDC: "Physical Activity for Everyone."

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