How to Talk to Kids about Exercise

Before we want anything else for our kids we want them to be happy and healthy even if we aren’t always. Personally, I think that fostering a love or a habit of exercise in your kids is a really big part of that. But that, like so many other things in life is complicated. If you force them they probably will not continue when they get out on their own. With no direction you’ll probably get the same result. If you do it wrong talking to the littles about the importance of exercise can lead to body issues or even an eating disorder. You might notice through this post that I default to talking about girls but all of this applies equally to boys too. It’s just that with girl children they get so much more messaging about their bodies and the stakes are so often much higher with girls. Weight and exercise can be a touchy subject in a lot of homes for a variety of reasons. Studies show that by age ten most little girls already have negative feelings about their body and about as many have tried dieting so we need to get to them before that! If we can teach them to love their bodies for all the amazing things it can do then they are more resistant to all those unhealthy messages. I think that exercise and being knowledgeable about it is a great place to start with that. Let’s start off dealing with the extremes of saying nothing and pushing too hard. I would argue you’re looking for somewhere in the middle. Then we will get into some guidelines for talking to you kids and educating them about the importance of fitness in their lives.

And why you should!

My childhood and saying nothing

I’m talking about this not because my parents were doing something terrible but because so many people say nothing to their kids about exercise. I asked honey about it and he never had a conversation with his kids either. My parents didn’t talk to me about exercise, make movement a priority in the house and they didn’t get active with us on the regular. Which I think is actually pretty normal. In our house if anything it was a bit of a taboo subject which might be pretty normal too. My Dad’s weight led to health issues for him my whole childhood and he wasn’t doing anything about it. Out of an abundance of sensitivity we never talked about working out or dieting unless it came from him. We did participate in a sport season twice. We had to do well in school, take piano, go to girl guides and take one swimming lesson a week 16 weeks a year but other than that crickets. 

I think this does a disservice to kids because exercise isn’t something most people will come to on their own until well into their 20’s, if then. By then it’s way harder to start than if it’s been a part of your life all along. I consider myself lucky that even though I wasn’t pushed or encouraged to be purposefully active as a child I came to running on my own at about 13. I came to it in a really unhealthy way though because I got my information and education about exercise from the most toxic of sources first in the form of teen and women’s magazines. So when I started and for a long time after it was an unhealthy thing for me. No parent wants that to be the message their kids get about exercise but if you say nothing that’s the message they will get. It wasn’t tied to physical or mental health, fun or as a hobby it was in response to body issues, a form of punishment connected to food and since I didn’t run all that often it made me feel terrible about myself when I did try. No one was telling me about all the good things or that if I kept consistent it would get easier really fast.

Forcing the issue

The opposite of saying nothing is pushing too hard, often in one sport. I think we all have an idea about this tiger parent. Here’s the thing studies show that specializing in a sport at a very young age doesn’t have much of an influence of performance later on. Since I’m in Canada we might as well focus on hockey. If you push your kid to make the most competitive teams before age 10 there is no benefit at college age. It is important for them to be exposed at a young age if they are to excel in certain sports they can still make the NHL if they take it easy until puberty. Interestingly though studies show a high training volume in very young children also doesn’t cause negative lasting effects either. There can be a lot of reasons to push a child in sport including paying for university but you want them to still love and incorporate exercise into their lives after your influence is over. At a very young age before 7 expose them to many sports including the one you want them to excel in equally, but put them in lots of other activities too. You can even pick things that will support them in their main sport. Before puberty children’s bodies don’t respond to training the same way adults bodies do. They can’t increase their VO2 max for example so pushing them now won’t reap rewards for the future physically. As they near puberty (9 or 10) they can focus more on one sport but do keep some other activities in the mix even if it’s just cross training like running, cycling or gym time. This way they can still focus on one sport but develop interests in several others. Do your best to make sure they are doing other things still too if they do become hyper focused on one sport. This allows for excellence but also prevents burnout. Before puberty it should be about instilling a love and developing healthy habits.

U.S. Marines with the 3rd Marine Division and III Marine Headquarters Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force lose a round of tug of war with children at a school in Pattaya, Thailand, Feb. 18, 2014, during exercise Cobra Gold 2014. Cobra Gold is a regularly scheduled joint/combined exercise designed to ensure regional peace and strengthen the ability of the Royal Thai Armed Forces to defend Thailand or respond to regional contingencies. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joy M. Kirch-Kelling, U.S. Navy/Released)

Lead by example

There is an age where having any real training is a bit ridiculous. You can’t ask a 4 year old to seriously train for a 5k, no matter how much effort you put in. Even if you don’t exercise it’s still worth talking to you child about it. Ideally though, if you want to create good habits you need to lead by example. You have to keep talk about food and your body out of the equation and talk about how fun it is, even if you don’t believe that personally. But if you’re getting out there and moving along with your kid and extolling the virtues of movement there isn’t a lot of space left to connect those dots. If you want your child to be a runner it doesn’t mean you have to do marathons yourself. Rather get out there for walks a few times a week with them and encourage them to run. Kids look up to their parents even more than we realize so have the whole experience be a together thing. My aunt and uncle did this very well and just like mom and dad all three of the kids are runners, cross fitters and even triathletes and now they’re well into their 30’s.

How to frame you discussion

With all those things in mind here are some concrete ideas to facilitate teaching and talking to you children about exercise. Some of these suggestions might seem like you’re fighting the inevitable about messaging but you just want to get your message in first.

  • You want to have them form an opinion and love of movement before they get the message that it’s mostly a way to compensate for a bad diet or control your weight.
  • Even when there is a weight issue don’t link exercise to food ever.
  • It’s okay to do structured workouts and celebrate accomplishments like records and trophies but make sure at lest sometimes it’s only about health and fun.
  • Point out that people they look up to are dedicated exercisers. (This worked wonders for me.)
  • Keep the focus on how exercise makes you feel not what you look like or winning.
  • Science says it does in fact make children healthier and smarter. Things like bone density and executive function are improved even in preschoolers after exercise.
  • By age 9 over half of children are dissatisfied with the shapes of their bodies so the healthy discussion about exercise should start in your home well before that.
  • It’s okay to encourage children to do on purpose workouts like running, cycling a certain distance or swimming laps (among other things) that we might not deem play but as often as possible you want it to be fun and not a chore.
  • Before age 7 exercise shouldn’t come at the expense of play, but you can do both.
  • If you train in your sport hard find a way to include your child its a perfect way to have them grow in a sport with you.
  • If you do structured workouts make it a ritual in much the same way an adult would with special clothes and give them the same gear you would appreciate.
  • Look for kids events like races, triathlons and obstacle runs. Trust me there are lots out there for every age!
  • Be realistic about what your specific child and a child that age can do. 
  • Talk about how exercise puts you in a good mood and later on is a great way to clear your head if you’re dealing with a problem.
  • Let them know that for everyone a new workout is very, very hard. Also let them know that as soon as they start their body will change and adapt to make it feel easier. If they give it a couple of weeks it will get easier and be more fun.
  • Share that every sport isn’t for every person, that’s why we have so many. If in a few months they still hate it they can move on and try something else. It’s no big deal!
  • Consistency is important when it comes to fitness so for best results model that and make it possible for your children to get active consistently.
  • Reframe ‘active play time’ as “movement time” where the idea is to move as much as possible.
  • Start setting them up for on purpose workouts before it’s time.
  • It’s okay to not let them win sometimes, more so as they get older.
  • Exercise should never, ever be used as punishment!

If all else fails

Basically my only encouragement to exercise came from my dad when my high energy level was annoying him. He would send me outside to a certain number run laps around the house while he (said he) was counting. Go figure that I grew up to be a runner then! That might sound like punishment but it wasn’t exactly. It was more akin to getting me out of his hair with a very strong suggestion. While this isn’t the best way to encourage kids to develop perfect attitudes towards fitness it is better than nothing. Find those two bird one stone opportunities as a parent and get them moving. So when they come to you and say “I’m bored” you can say “go ride your bikes then” in a way that’s less than optional. When and where appropriate send them on a walk to the store to pick up an ingredient you’re missing for dinner or lunches. When age appropriate its fine for this to take over half an hour. So I guess I’m saying kick them outdoors (with a plan) when they are driving you nuts.

Baby (and auntie) transition area.

I’m not an expert or a parent but I do think great habits like being active for a lifetime don’t usually happen by accident. I also don’t think any parent wants their kids defaulting to the unhealthy messaging that can put their kids at risk about their bodies later on. For that reason I don’t think children are ever too young to start hearing about exercise. But they might be too young to participate very effectively. I want to give that gift to my nieces and nephews and when it came up organically I did it with honey’s kids too. My niece will be 4 soon and last year she got 4 pieces of race bling to add to the medal holder I made her for Christmas. Sure she walked virtually all of them and for one I carried her for most of it. But her favorite shirt is her Navy run shirt and one weekend she woke up and asked if she was running with Ciocia Alliy today. I hope to do the same with my nephews but probably not until next year! When I get to see her this year I’ll be encouraging her to go for a run with me, whatever that means to her. With children and fitness it is important to be flexible set the right goal at the right time. How do you think we should talk to children about exercise? Do you do it with your kids? Leave it in the comments below!

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