Keeping kids active: Ideas for parents




Children seem to become more sedentary every year, watching television and playing video games instead of biking to the playground or playing kickball in the backyard with their pals. Even schools have stopped emphasizing fitness. In some school districts, physical education has vanished completely because of underfunding.

Kids need regular exercise to build strong bones and muscles. Exercise also helps children sleep well at night and stay alert during the day. Such habits established in childhood help adolescents maintain healthy weight despite the hormonal changes, rapid growth and social influences that often lead to overeating. And active children are more likely to become fit adults.

As childhood has become more sedentary, children have put on weight lots of it. In the past 30 years, the rate of childhood obesity has more than tripled, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of children with type 2 diabetes, a disease once limited to sedentary, overweight adults.

The forces behind the obesity epidemic have been operating for several decades. They're pretty well beyond your control. But you do have the power to give your children a lifelong appreciation for activities that strengthen their bodies.

Set a good example


If you want an active child, be active yourself. Take the stairs instead of the elevator and park the car farther away from stores. Never make exercise seem a punishment or a chore. Find fun activities that the whole family can do together, such as:

  • Swimming
  • Nature hikes
  • Cycling
  • Canoeing
  • Walks with the family dog

"If mom and dad exercise, it's a very powerful stimulus for a child to exercise," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation and co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. "In addition to getting you active, exercising together gives you good family time. The key is to get kids moving. Free-play activities such as playing tag, hide-and-seek, hopscotch or jump-rope can be great for burning calories and improving fitness."

Limit screen time


"There are a lot of reasons why children are less active today, but the biggest culprit is the television set, followed closely by video games and computers," Dr. Laskowski says. "These activities encourage a sedentary lifestyle."

Watching television is directly related to childhood obesity. Children who watch more than five hours of television a day are eight times more likely to be obese than are children who watch less than two hours of television a day.

A surefire way to increase your children's activity levels is to limit the number of hours they're allowed to watch television each day. Other sedentary activities playing video and computer games or talking on the phone also should be limited.

Promote activity, not exercise


Children don't have to be in sports or take dance classes to be active. "Every kid is wired differently," says Dr. Laskowski. "We all have certain strengths and certain anatomical features and characteristics that permit us to do certain things better than others."

Many noncompetitive activities are available for a child who isn't interested in organized athletics. The key is to find things that your child likes to do. For instance, if your child is artistically inclined, go on a nature hike to collect leaves and rocks that your child can use to make a collage. If your child likes to climb, head for the nearest neighborhood jungle gym or climbing wall. If your child likes to read, then walk or bike to the neighborhood library for a book.

For a youngster interested in sports, however, involvement can be the basis for a variety of activities, including training for better performance and developing skills to play several sports. Before your child plunges into an organized sport or activity, learn as much as you can about:

  • How much time you and your child will have to commit to practices and games
  • How much participation and equipment will cost
  • The characteristics of the sport for example, the relative emphasis it places on agility, speed, coordination, endurance and strength
  • Your child's physical maturity
  • The quality of instruction
  • What benefits your child hopes to derive from it, and how you hope it will benefit him or her

Start young


Remember your energetic toddler? Direct that energy into a lifelong love of physical activity. For instance, have your child show you how bunnies hop, eagles fly or dogs wag their tails.

Some other suggestions for keeping kids interested:

  • Play games your elementary school child loves, like tag, cops and robbers, Simon says and red light, green light. If you don't remember the rules for these games, make up your own or walk to your local library and check out a book on games.
  • Let your toddlers and preschoolers see how much fun you can have while being active. Don't just run with them. Run like a gorilla. Walk like a spider. Hop like a bunny. Stretch like a cat.
  • Plan your family vacations around physical activities hiking, biking, skiing, snorkeling, swimming or camping. Take along a ball or Frisbee disc to sneak in some activity at rest stops.
  • Make chores a family affair. Who can pull the most weeds out of the vegetable garden? Who can collect the most litter in the neighborhood? Have your kids help shovel the snow off the driveway and use that excess snow to build a huge snow fort.
  • Vary the activities. Let each child take a turn choosing the activity of the day or week. Batting cages, bowling and fast-food play areas all count. What matters is that you're doing something active as a family.

"By incorporating physical activity into our children's lives at an early age, we are setting the foundation for good fitness habits in the years to come," says Dr. Laskowski. "In fact, it can have a ripple effect on future generations and contribute to overall enhancement of public health."