Everyone knows that exercise is a crucial part of staying healthy both physically and mentally. When it comes to our children, their relationship with physical activity is a direct correlation to what they see their parents doing. If mom and dad are taking physical activity seriously in a healthy positive manner, so will the kids, if not, well, children will always follow their parents lead and sometimes the other side of the coin can lead to unhealthy behavior.
“Parents are typically the earliest influence in the child’s development of attitudes and values, including those related to food, body image and exercise,” said Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association in an interview with Huffpost.com. “Research on this topic has found that children of parents who are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risk for modeling their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors, like compulsive exercise. On the flip-side, research indicates that children of parents who have a healthy relationship with food, exercise and body image are more likely to have positive self-esteem, improved school and social functioning, and a reduced risk for eating disorders.”
So, just how do parents promote a positive view of fitness for their children? Here are three ways that the experts identify to help parents instill a healthy attitude in their children towards exercise. While we are all in quarantine, there is no better time like the present!
1. Separate exercise from physical appearance.
“In our thin-obsessed culture, it’s too easy for children to come to believe that the purpose of exercise is to obtain a thin body or to lose weight or to achieve a certain physical appearance,” said Rebecca Puhl, a professor in the department of human development and family sciences and deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut to Huffpost. “These messages are damaging to youth, so parents need to be mindful of those broader societal messages that children see and hear, and to instead focus on engaging in physical activity for the purpose of health and well-being.
Additionally, Mysko added that, “Parents can encourage physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle rather than a means to achieving a certain weight or body size. By shifting the focus away from appearance, we can frame exercise in the context of joyful movement: walking the dog, play dates at the park, impromptu dance parties, and more.”
2. Talk about physical activity in a positive way.
“Small comments can have a lasting impact on a child as they develop beliefs about their body image and satisfaction or dissatisfaction,” said Lindsey Giller, a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in the interview. “If a parent says, ‘Ugh, in order to eat that dessert, I’m going to need to spend hours at the gym’ or ‘I hate exercising, it’s such a drag,’ kids pick up on that and internalize it.”
Nailah Coleman, a sports medicine pediatrician and American College of Sports Medicine fellow, weighed in on the conversation saying that, “Parents could also speak about their enjoyment of a challenging physical activity. When finishing a nice run, game of catch or swim in the pool, a parent could say, ‘Wow! That was fun! Even though running that mile was hard/even though it is difficult to throw very far right now/even though swimming that last lap made me tired, I am proud that I finished it and did my best. How do you feel about our activity?’”
3. Find out what types of movements your kids enjoy.
“Another way parents can help foster a healthy attitude toward exercise is by asking their children what type of movement makes them feel good inside and out,” Mysko said.
Giller suggested that, “Together, you might consider creating an activity list for the upcoming week or month. Kids are more likely to buy into things if they feel an element of control in choosing the way to participate. Make movement fun for the whole family ― whether it’s going for a walk or bicycle ride as a family, building an obstacle course and timing how long it takes for the kids to complete it, or blasting music to have a dance party to start the day. Parents can plan activities or trips that promote new ways to exercise, such as hiking, kayaking, rock climbing. Allowing kids to invite friends along also helps to make exercise more social and fun.”
Exercising can be a fun family time that becomes a healthy and positive habit that kids take with them well into adulthood. If you are not doing something that your kids enjoy, try it, you just might like it. But, the most important thing is to get moving, get healthy and do it together!