Updated: Feb 6, 2020
A family that works out together stays together...if it's done right.
We all want our kids to be healthy and active. It’s probably a safe bet to say that most of us want to be active too. The more challenging reality comes when trying to mesh these two desires together in a way that actually leads to happy and healthy fitness for the entire family. Promoting fitness to your own children (or partner…tread lightly…) can easily go down the wrong path. Below are some recommendations on what to do and what to avoid when trying to add more activity into your family routine.
Don’t make it exercise
Being active is not necessarily the same as exercising, and getting your children to be active is much easier when it doesn’t sound or seem like exercise. My kids will regularly scoff at the idea of going on a run or even going on a walk around the block, but will jump on any opportunity to kick, throw, or hit a ball together.
Be warned that biking can be hit or miss, but biking to a destination is almost always a more popular proposal. The same goes for walking and running. Disguise the exercise component of the activity, and focus instead on the other aspects.
Don’t make it about you
Your kids need to want to be active on their own and for their own reasons. Our motivations for having active children are likely to be a lot different than theirs. While we may be thinking about goals like long-term health, enhanced performance in sports, or weight loss as the motivating factors, chances are your kids have different objectives. Hell, chances are they may not have any true objectives for why they want to be active, they just feel like it at some given moment.
To then take the focus away from the activity and make it about you can almost immediately kill the desire to be active. Your child does not need to see how amazingly able you are to beat him or her at the end of a run or how much farther you can throw a ball. Chances are they don’t care how you used to be the best basketball player ‘back in the day’.
Likewise, if your kids want to be active without you, that’s not only okay, that’s wonderful. It might feel a bit insulting at first to be denied your request to exercise together, but if your kid is active, it shouldn’t matter whether that is on their own, with their friends or siblings, or with you.
Whether it takes the form of play or exercise, if you want to make it a positive experience, keep your criticism to yourself. What you may see as helpful recommendations about form, technique, or exertion levels may come across instead as unsought criticism that takes the fun away.
Depending on your child, the mere suggestion of having them exercise may come across as judgmental. Regardless of what your child’s baseline activity levels may be, suggesting (or worse yet telling them) they should go running is probably offensive. I’m not an especially sensitive person, but I would take offense to my kids or partner telling me I should exercise, even if they made the suggestion based on genuine concern for my well-being.
Be very careful so the ‘You can do it’ statements are understood as encouraging and not interpreted as ‘You can do it better than you currently are doing it.’
If you manage to make it out on the road or gym or field, there is still a very fine line between motivation and criticism. Be very careful so the ‘You can do it’ statements are understood as encouraging and not interpreted as ‘You can do it better than you currently are doing it.’ Set realistic expectations, or better yet, try to remove all expectations and just follow the flow and comfort level of your child.
Let your child lead
Speaking of expectations, the easiest way to avoid burdening your child with external expectations is to let them take charge. On a run, follow their pace (if you can!). When playing together, let them be the one who chooses the game and how long to play. When biking, running, or walking, let them choose the destination. By taking charge of their own exercise, we can hope to build ‘self-efficacy’ in our children to help them sustain life-long healthy exercise habits.
Be the good example
Despite every effort you make to encourage your child to be active, they may choose to pursue other endeavors. If this is the case, no amount of encouragement, bribery, or external motivation can compete with the positive example you can set by leading your own active lifestyle. Approaching your own exercise with a positive attitude along with openly (but not obnoxiously) exclaiming the benefits to your mood, health, and energy levels may just be enough to rub off on your kids. If all goes well, five years from now it will be your kids encouraging you to join them on a run instead of the other way around!