Encouraging Physical Activity in Children

For most parents, the ultimate goal is to raise healthy, smart, successful and happy children. Anyone who has kids can attest to the fact that it’s a wild ride, with some twists and turns that aren’t always visible up ahead. There’s no manual, no green light that will spin and flash when you make the right call — and parenting, in general, requires a lot of gut-checks and crossed-fingers as you navigate through the childrearing years. As if the task at hand wasn’t tough enough already, these days we’re also taking on the rising challenge of childhood obesity , hich sadly has come to affect 1 in every 5 school-age children. It wasn’t always this big a problem in America. In fact, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has nearly tripled since the 1970s. We can thank the booming convenience-food culture and the rise of technology for contributing to a sedentary lifestyle and an imbalance in energy.

Though it’s a fact that genetics can play a role in body weight and proportion, as well as metabolism — which is naturally slower in some children — there are two significant and modifiable obesity risk factors that parents can influence in their children: diet and physical activity. These are two things we have total control over.

[See: 13 Fun Sports That Burn Calories.]

Our children look to us as examples for how to live, and they develop their lifelong habits by modeling our behaviors, so it’s crucial to teach them the importance of a healthy diet and regular physical activity from a young age. Doing so will contribute to a healthy weight, strong muscles and bones, decreased risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, better sleep and an overall happier and more confident mindset about life. Here’s an added bonus: Kids who are physically active are also more likely to be motivated and focused in school.

Here are five tips to encourage physical activity in your children:

1. Keep play lighthearted for littles. When young children are playing in an organized sport or activity, try not to get too wrapped up in the details or “rules” of the sport. Letting kids “play as they go” is often more enjoyable for them than having to abide by strict rules, and sometimes dictating instructions is a surefire way to make a kid want to quit. Kids, especially the youngest among us, simply don’t want to do things that aren’t fun. After all, the primary definition of the word play, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is: “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Let them choose the activities they like to engage in. Over time (even if they aren’t following the rules), their skillsets will improve, and that’s an instant confidence booster for kids to continue in any given sport or activity and try new ones. As long as they are running, jumping and moving around, they’re getting the healthy exercise benefits they genuinely need, so allow them to have some fun at play without too many parameters (except those that are designed for their safety and the safety of other children around them).

2. Choose activities that are age and skill-level appropriate. The key to keeping your kids (and their friends) engaged in exercise is to allow them to select the activity that best suits them. If an activity is too “old” or too “young” for your child, they may get bored and lose interest, or get frustrated if they find themselves unable to do it as well as they want. For parents, the challenge is to help their kids find physical activities they enjoy and feel successful doing. When you see the match with an activity that’s right for your child, interest and commitment often follow. Unsure of the choices out there? Preschoolers benefit most from play and exercise that helps them build fundamental gross-motor skills — like kicking a ball, hopping on one foot or riding a bike with training wheels. School-age kids can start getting into traditional sports like soccer and baseball, karate or biking, for example. By the teenage years, your child will most likely have a good idea of what sport he or she is into and can join a school sports team or even get a membership to a local gym.

[See: What to Do or Say If Your Daughter Thinks She’s Fat.]

3. Make fitness a family affair. This means just that: Join in on exercise time with your children. Instead of going to the movies for your next family outing, opt for a hike or a bike ride instead. Plan a set time to be active as a family, like a walk around the neighborhood after dinner or a tennis match every Saturday morning, so it just becomes part of life’s routine and feels less like “exercise” and more like family fun.

4. Monitor and moderate the screen time. If kids aren’t sitting in front of the TV, tablet or smartphone, they have no other choice than to go do something. With no limits on screen time, most kids will choose just to lay back, relax and binge-watch their favorite shows or play video games all day. These activities can quickly become the habits you don’t want to establish in your family and are much harder to break once they set in. Setting time limits on technology every day forces everyone in the family to choose something else to do — and may even land them outside doing something active or inside doing something creative and imaginative. And sorry parents, it can be near impossible to remove your child from the TV while you’re still watching it, so turning it off entirely or putting the tablets and smartphones away while you’re with your kids is an example that starts with you!

5. Be their biggest cheerleader. Encourage your children to participate in sports, join a team or even practice another activity at home. Often, positive encouragement from parents is the confidence boost kids need to sign up or start something new. As their skills improve, let them know that you notice, and compliment them on their progress. And if your child wants to try something he or she has never tried before, champion the effort. Trying new things isn’t easy, and commending kids who want to do things that aren’t easy is essential. Never underestimate the power of some extra motivation.

[See: 10 Fun, Fresh Ways to Work Out Together as a Family.]

Whatever their age or fitness level, every child can be physically fit. Keep a positive attitude and support your kids’ interest to manifest activity and exercise as a healthy (and fun) part of everyday life.

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Encouraging Physical Activity in Children originally appeared on usnews.com