6 Ways to Get Any Kid to Exercise

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 01, 2022
4 min read

Maybe your child hates sports, or gets more excited about video games than the kickball field. Or maybe they feel too out of shape to keep up with other kids their age. Whatever the reason, it can be tough to motivate a kid to exercise when they just aren’t interested.

You know that nagging doesn’t work. And you might worry that if you push too hard on that evening walk or little league sign-up, you’ll turn your child off of exercise for good.

But you have more power than you realize, says Blaise A. Nemeth, MD, associate professor at the American Family Children’s Hospital at the University of Wisconsin.

“Parents can do a lot to help inspire even the most sedentary kids to move more,” he says.

A handful of tricks can get children moving more on a regular basis, even if they won’t be signing up for a soccer team any time soon.

1. Understand that exercise looks different for kids. To you, working out might mean running on a treadmill for 30 minutes or burning a set number of calories. But kids are active in a different way than adults, Nemeth says.

“Children exercise in short bursts and use their bodies in lots of different directions,” so keep that in mind when you’re suggesting activities for them, he says. “Think of yourself as if you were a playmate -- not a personal trainer.”

So instead of sending your child out for a jog, offer to play a family game of tag in the backyard.

Bonus: “When you get moving with your kids, there’s a triple whammy effect: Your kids get moving, you get moving, and it’s a great way for all of you to interact with each other,” Nemeth says.

2. Talk about the benefits of exercise. You don’t have to convince your child to change their hobbies or interests. Just help them understand all the ways that moving their body will help them feel better in other parts of life.

For example, if you have a bookworm who’d rather be on the math league than out on the baseball diamond, talk with them about how exercise can pump up their brain with better concentration and focus.

3. Get sneaky. There are a lot of ways to get kids active without them realizing they’re moving more. Park your car far from the mall entrance so everyone has to cover more ground to get inside. Or, if your child loves animals, suggest that they volunteer at a local shelter where they can get on dog-walking duty.

“Rather than looking at it like you’re being sneaky, think of yourself as the mastermind of your child’s wellbeing,” says Kathleen Bethin, MD, PhD, clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Buffalo.

4. Understand why your child doesn’t like to exercise. It might be a simple reason, like they don’t like being hot and sweaty. Or there might be other issues at play. Are they being bullied on the tennis court, or having trouble breathing when they run?

If you know what’s going on, it’s easier to find a solution to help them.

If you can’t seem to get to the bottom of it, consider bringing your child to a counselor, who might be able to help you understand why your child doesn’t want to get active.

“You may not have the skillset to uncover the root cause of why your child is avoiding exercise, and that’s OK,” Bethin says. “There are professionals who can help.”

5. Start small. Experts say kids should get about an hour of exercise every day -- but that doesn’t mean you should tell them that, Bethin says. “If exercising for 30 minutes feels like too much to kids, they’re not going to do it,” she says.

Instead, get them to commit to a tiny amount of exercise time, even just 5 minutes.

“The goal is to get them to set and stick to a goal,” Bethin says. “When kids commit to even a small amount of exercise, they’ll likely feel better about themselves and reflect back and say, ‘I did it.’” That will inspire them to do more and more over time.

6. Switch up your go-to family activities. Instead of Friday night movies or going for brunch after church, head to a trampoline park or rock climbing wall, or take a hike with a picnic lunch. Offer up some new, movement-focused ideas and see what excites your kids the most.

“Just like adults who avoid workouts that they hate and make the exercise that they love a priority, kids will want to continue to do what they truly enjoy,” Bethin says.