Leaving your lethargy to the kids?
Author: Kate Cross
Got any rug rats in your life? We all know kids are the ultimate sponge, so if you’ve got a love-hate relationship with exercise, chances are those youngsters are picking up on that behaviour and might very well mimic it.
“[Children] learn by observing and doing what others around them do,” says Registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist Patrea O'Donoghue.
“A child raised in a physically active family is more likely to find being physically active comes more ‘naturally’ … not just in childhood, but throughout their life, especially compared to a child raised in a family that doesn't place such an emphasis on being physically active,” she says.
Of course, various factors can influence a kid’s affinity for movement.
Junior High Performance Specialist and fitness expert Jane Kilkenny says “enjoying physical activity is influenced by family and environment, however, there is also something to be said for genetics and personality traits”.
However, she adds: “I believe the biggest influence for every child is exposure to the right factors from a very early age.”
Unfortunately, research suggests that kids aren’t moving as much they should be. A 2019 paper in The Lancet found a whopping 81 per cent of adolescents worldwide were “insufficiently physically active” in 2016. (The World Health Organization recommends kids aged five to 17 accumulate at least an hour of physical activity each day.)
So, what exactly are the “right factors” Ms Kilkenny speaks of and how can we – parents, educators and role models – instil a physical activity habit in the next generation?
How to create a fit kid
Ms O'Donoghue and Ms Kilkenny offer these tips:
Start early – According to Ms O'Donoghue, this includes modelling a physical activity habit from before the child can talk. “So much conditioning of values and behaviours happens from such a young age … so walk the baby in the stroller soon after the birth,” she says. Ms Kilkenny adds that starting early also means exposing kids “to the fundamental motor skills of run, jump, hop, skip, throw and catch as these are the basis of all movement success”. If, however, your kids are beyond the preschool years and you’re worried they’ve missed the boat, rest assured Ms Kilkenny says, “fundamental motor skills can be improved at any age, with skilled education and practice”.
Equate exercise with fun – “Movement and activity should be associated with positive feelings and emotions,” says Ms Kilkenny, explaining that we should use “words such as fun, confidence, skills, balance, excitement, laughter and happiness”. Adds Ms O'Donoghue: “Kids learn through play and play has to be a bit of fun for them, especially early on.” Also, don’t underestimate the value of games. According to Ms Kilkenny, they are “great for teaching children about sharing, taking turns, practising, improving and achievement”.
Encourage sports participation – “Sport, training and competition should be introduced around school age,” says Ms Kilkenny, adding: “This is usually where we see the children with higher physical literacy being attracted to playing sport.” If, however, they aren’t ‘sporty’, that’s okay. “You don’t have to play competitive sports [but] you need to be physically active,” says Ms Kilkenny.
Keep yourself moving – Both experts agree that adults should lead by example if they want youngsters to take them seriously about exercise.
Mix things up – Ms Kilkenny says that “it is crucial to … find activities that the child enjoys, expose them to a wide variety of opportunities and take the time to practise together”.
Don’t compare – “Each child’s development is individual; it cannot be rushed,” says Ms Kilkenny.
Offer encouragement – This might involve encouraging the child to see their sporting commitments through, suggests Ms O'Donoghue. It could also mean encouraging “open and honest communication”, adds Ms Kilkenny. One thing adults shouldn’t do, however, is “live vicariously through [their] child’s sporting ability”, says Ms Kilkenny. Rather “encourage them to be a happy, healthy independent thinker”, she says.
Who knows, they might just thank us one day!