Every parent wants their kids to be three things:
The shortcut to all three: exercise. In fact, a study review by the British Heart Foundation found that physical activity doesn’t just do a body good, but helps kids’ social and emotional development.
So problem solved, right? Not so fast. Children don’t just embrace what mom and dad tell them to do. “Please, more kale salad,” said no kid ever.
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So what do you do? We asked Jim Taylor, Ph.D., a sports and parenting psychologist and author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. Here’s how parents can encourage their kids to love a good sweat.
1. Start Them Young
Don’t wait. Get your kids to embrace exercise as soon as they’re physically able. “If kids’ earliest memories are of being part of a physically active family, they’ll never question whether exercise is something they should do or not,” Taylor says. “Instead, it’s a part of who they are.”
That’s not to say they’ll grow up to be sloths if you’ve been slow to introduce physical activity into their lives. Really, it’s never too late to start. “You can begin with something very basic like playground outings and walks in the park,” says Taylor, “right up to regular organized sports activities if they’re a bit older.”
2. Laugh, and Then Laugh Some More
Smiles are contagious. Every time you and your child play tag, kick a ball, hike up a hill, or even walk together to the store, you’re improving your health and happiness, Taylor notes. “Don’t make it a grind,” he advises. “If you’re pushy or start putting pressure on your child to do an activity or sport, they won’t want to return to it. If you make it fun, then they’ll want to do it again. It’s that simple.”
3. Show, Don’t Tell
Parenting isn’t a spectator sport, but being a child kind of is. Kids catalog everything you’re doing and can be influenced accordingly. For example, a study from the University of Bristol revealed that youngsters were more physically active than their peers if their parents had at least a twice-weekly habit of hitting the gym.
“Being a good role model is perhaps the most important way to engage kids in exercise,” says Taylor. “If parents are active, the kids get the message that fitness is important.”
4. Wear Kid Gloves
Of course, even if something looks enjoyable, all kids are different. Whereas one child might be shimmying up trees as soon as she can walk, another may view the second rung of the monkey bars as her Everest.
Taylor recommends breaking an activity into small, separate steps to get more cautious kids feel better outside their comfort zone. “Start with something you know they can manage,” he says, “and be there for them so that they feel safe when initially trying it out.”
5. Mix It Up to Make It Stick
We all know consistency is key to developing healthy habits, but variety will keep your kids curious. That may mean mixing and matching different activities to find the one that suits.
“Some kids prefer physical activities that are social,” Taylor says. “Others prefer to get involved in a sport because they enjoy improving or competing. But they won’t discover what they enjoy unless they try out a lot of different activities. And don’t limit them to activities that you are interested in. Help them find their own.”
6. Watch Your Mouth
You can do the above, but if you grumble when you go to the gym or call your training “torture,” your child will likely look on exercise as punishment, not pleasure.
“And it’s not just the words you use but the emotional content behind them,” Taylor says. “Kids pick up on any anxiety or aggression you may have toward exercise or getting them to do exercise.”
So choose these words: Awesome, fun, exhilarating, or just plain old good. Do that and your kids won’t just love exercise; they’ll love you for making them feel great about it.