I look back fondly on my school days when every possible minute before school, at lunchtime, and during the afternoon recess I played handball or football.
After school my friends and I would race home and meet at the local park for a game of football or baseball. Television, CDs, computers, console games, and the Internet either had not been invented or didn't rate a mention as long as we could be outside playing.
The situation is much different for today's children. They are much less likely to walk to and from school and much more likely to be sedentary. Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past 25 years. Yet physical activity is just as important now as it ever has been. Why do children avoid exercise?
The enjoyment of sports at an early age, and the influence of parents, friends, teachers, coaches, and schools, combines to shape lifelong attitudes and participation in sports and exercise. There's a vast array of experiences and emotions that determine a young person's willingness to be active.
Children have different needs, depending on their personality and stage of development. Embarrassment is recognized as one of the main reasons children avoid physical activity. This can stem from a fear of looking silly, which easily turns into a negative attitude toward exercise. Children who question their own skills and abilities may be hesitant to try something new.
Competition can also be discouraging, because there will always be a loser. That's why I recommend that, prior to the age of ten, children should be encouraged to learn basic skills through small games and group activities without the pressure of winning. An emphasis on enjoyment rather than winning encourages children to participate in a wide variety of sports at school, within the community, and with family and friends.
It's important that young people have a range of options to choose from so they have a better chance of finding something they enjoy. Children who enjoy the rewards of sports participation, such as belonging to a team, achieving goals, and learning new skills, are more likely to continue playing, and in the process, they will develop lifelong habits.
The parent’s role
The home environment has a powerful influence on children, giving parents a unique opportunity to be a positive influence on their children's activity habits. As a parent, your exercise routine and your attitude toward exercise will affect the health of your child. Parents who are active themselves will stimulate their children's interest in physical activity and motivate them to take part.
There’s not much point in telling your child to go outside and play while you eat chips on the couch. The best way for children to learn healthy habits is from good examples set in the home. Children are good learners, and they learn the most from what they see the most. Your children will follow your habits and emulate your desire to be healthy and active they will see that healthy behavior is important, and they will develop positive attitudes toward health and fitness.
Your example is especially crucial when your children are young. As they enter to the teen years, their peers will increasingly influence them. However, this is not to say that the parent of a teenage child can't make a significant difference in that child activity levels.
One good thing person can do is to encourage their children to walk to school. Depending on your children's age and how safe is your neighborhood, your children can walk with you, walk themselves, walk part of the way if you drive them part of the way, or walk with other children.
Motivating your child to exercise
Don't rely on your children's schools alone to provide all their physical activity. A supportive family can make all the difference when it comes to exercising more. Parents who encourage their children to take up a sport while providing transportation and financial support, along with a "Do your best" attitude, increase their chances of finding a sport they enjoy.
To help motivate your children to be active, take every opportunity to give praise and positive feedback for any physical activity. Show enthusiasm and give them support, letting them know you are proud of their efforts.
This can encourage them to keep at it. It's important not to be critical. Criticizing your child about his or her inactivity can often make things worse. Praise the positive rather than condemning the negative. It's also important not to use threats or punishment as an incentive to be more active. This can often make activity seem like a punishment in itself.
A guide for busy parents
Often, both parents work, making it difficult to coordinate exercise activities. However, there are things you can do. On the weekends, focus your family time and entertainment around activities such as tennis, table Tennis, volleyball, or swimming. Explore new surroundings by renting some bikes or canoes. Go on walks, or have an active picnic with a kite or a Frisbee.
There is also an increasing range of video games such as Wii Fit that can almost "trick" you into being active. These are ideal for busy families, as they can be enjoyed at night in the comfort of the family home. While it's unlikely that these devices can replace all exercise, it's a fun way for the family to spend time together rather than sitting on the couch.
Just as physical activity should be encouraged, inactive pastimes should be discouraged. This includes all sedentary activities such as computer games, cruising the Internet, watching DVDs, and constant cellphone texting. These activities lead to motion deprivation, where people spend hours doing little more than sitting. To reverse this trend and burn more calories, it's important to add more movement into your child's lifestyle.
Structured and planned physical activities such as organized sports are important, but these are not the only way to get your child active. You can also focus on other movements and incidental activities that children can do through the day. Many people assume that exercise has to involve sweat, discomfort, and even pain to derive any benefit. The good news is that "no pain, no gain" does not apply when it comes to fat burning and exercise, especially with kids.
However your family chooses to do it, get everyone involved in activities that require you to exercise, because this is one of the keys to all of you living long and happy lives.
This article originally appeared in/on Signs of Times on December 2010.