To shrink the growing problem of childhood obesity, parents need to inspire kids to be more active. That’s easier said than done.
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“Kids have to ‘own’ the desire to move,” says Eileen Kennedy, PhD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Fit Youth Program.
How can you promote greater physical activity without nagging, monitoring, begging or lecturing? Ask, “What physical activity can I introduce my child to that will make them love being active for the rest of their life?” advises Elizabeth Sprogis, MA, lead exercise physiologist for Fit Youth.
To thy child’s self be true
The key is to know your child — not just their talents, but what they are drawn to.
“If you have an artsy kid, encourage that, but let your child know that physical activity needs to be a part of every day,” Ms. Sprogis says. “It will give them more energy to put into their art.”
If kids are physically active, it improves every other area of their lives, including academic achievement, Dr. Kennedy adds.
Sorting out sports
Most parents think of sports when they think of physical activity for kids. Between ages 5 and 11, sports should be noncompetitive so kids learn about discipline and teamwork in the context of fun, Ms. Sprogis says.
Avoid signing kids up for travel teams and elite leagues before age 12. “Kids who start competitive, specialized practices too early can burn out by the time they hit high school,” she cautions.
When kids don’t like a sport, let them try something else. Kids in first grade and up should finish a season they start, Dr. Kennedy says, but don’t push 3- and 4-year-olds to finish T-ball or rec league soccer.
If kids don’t enjoy sports at all, that’s OK too. “Not everyone needs to be an athlete,” Ms. Sprogis says. “There are lots of other ways to be physically active.” For school-age kids, keep props at home — hula hoops, pogo sticks, jump ropes, cones — for when they get bored. “Then you can say, ‘Go play outside with this.’”
Screening kids’ screen time
One roadblock to being active for all ages is the hours spent in front of the television, computer or video game console.
“Two hours a day of all screen time combined is plenty,” Dr. Kennedy advises. Parents can even tell teens, “I think this is enough, it’s time to find something else to do,” she adds. Encourage them to bike or walk to a friend’s house to hang out instead of texting back and forth.
Dealing with backlash
It’s easy for parents to see sedentary kids as lazy, but that isn’t so, says Dr. Kennedy: “They just haven’t figured out how they want to be active.”
Talk with them about living a more active life, but stay calm and cool. Start by telling them what an important part of life moving is, and let them tell you what interests them.
Teens may jump at the chance to try a brand new activity — fencing, hip-hop dance, golf. Sign them up for lessons, if they’re interested, and encourage them to invite friends along.
“Parents need to bring their best stuff to this issue: their best listening, their best positive support, their best expectation that this is going to work out well,” Dr. Kennedy stresses. “Nagging, pleading, cajoling, shaming and angry statements will not engage teens.”