Parents: How to Instill a Love of Fitness in Your Kids

This is a post from NF Rebel Family Correspondent, father of 3, and mental health professional, Dan.

One thing I’ve always loved about starting a new video game is the character creation and customization menu.

As a young gamer, whether it was Tony Hawk’s Underground, WWF (that’s right, ‘F’) Smackdown or a good old fashioned RPG, I would always spend ages on this screen deciding what I felt were the best attributes, selecting weapons that would complement their skills, picking out the raddest outfit, and getting them to look just right (yet still ending up with something like this).

But as I’ve grown, I’ve spent less and less time on this menu. Hell, with three kids, I’ve spent less time gaming all together (I can’t even remember the last time I purchased a console game).

I still love customizing characters though. It’s just these days, my characters are real life little creatures, in their prime stage for optimum customization.

I’m choosing to build their character traits around a love of fitness, fun and wellbeing. I think these traits work well with so many game paths that it’s a great choice for most parent character-builders.

Is it easy? No, but it’s vitally important to foster and ingrain these attributes early in order for maximum impact and longevity.

But how do we do it? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Your First Mission: Take Care of Player 1

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Step 1: Acquire child(ren). I know this isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, and that’s cool, but if you do find yourself with kids, please proceed to Step 2. (Those not continuing further can resume enjoying their hot meals, nights out, money, and sleep).

Step 2: Recognize this begins with YOU.

Whether we like it or not, building a love of fitness and wellbeing in our children begins with us.

To quote our best mate Steve, from ‘How to Stay Active when you have a Family’:

“If we can instill the habit of health, fitness, and happiness in ourselves, our families are more likely to grow up healthy and not deal with the health issues that come with being overweight and out of shape.”

Children, no matter how young, take in absolutely everything going on around them. If they grow up in a household where mom and dad are low talkers, they’re going to follow suit with quieter voices when they start speaking. Likewise, if they see mom and dad as couch-dwelling beings glued to their devices, they will assume this is the norm and follow suit. But if they see their parents leading an active, fun and healthy lifestyle, they’ll be much more likely to continue this throughout their lives.

If we’re not leading by example, we’re not leading at all.

Be warned though. Building a life and love of fitness and wellbeing is not easy, particularly when you have kids (‘I know from experience, dude’). When you’re always freakin’ tired and so busy, exercise is usually the last thing you feel like doing.

This is why so many people tend to put fitness on permanent pause once they have kids.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there. Several times this week, in fact.

“Man, my eldest is refusing to put her pajamas on, there’s still food all over the floor from my toddler’s dinnertime tantrum, and the newborn will be waking in 30 minutes for her feed and will probably keep me up all night again. I’m not going to exercise tonight, I just don’t have the time.”

But as we should all know by now, this is a BIG. FAT. LIE.

When I start falling into this trap, I try to be honest with myself. What I should really be saying to myself is:

“Being a healthy role-model for my children isn’t a priority.”

That hits home pretty quickly.

Because if I decide my health isn’t a priority, I’m really saying my children’s health isn’t a priority either. It’s been shown that parents’ health levels directly impact the health and wellbeing of their children, especially early on in their lives: “When both parents were active, the children were 5.8 times as likely to be active.”

On the flip side, a Greek study found: Children with 1 obese parent were almost twice as likely to be overweight than children whose parents were of normal weight. Children with two obese parents were 2.4 times more likely to be overweight.

Alek Cole Race(Wookiee NF Team Member Alek with his son Cole after a race.)

As parents, we are the most important influencers in our children’s lives, but we’re only the superheroes for a few short years. It’s vitally important to start as early as we can.

Right from day one (which, if you haven’t started yet, is TODAY!), lead the way, find the time and show your kids that being healthy is an important part of all of our lives.

The best part about conquering this step is that once you have forged your own fitness path, your kids will start to imitate you without any further work. That’s right… do the work up for yourself up front, and the rest is downhill from there. You might say… a walk in the park (both figuratively and literally).Here’s what one Rebel, Heather says about working out around her three year old son:

If he’s interested in what I’m doing I’ll work to include him, show him how to try stuff, but if he’s involved in building a tower for his tractor to knock down I get on with my own thing while I have the space. What I have found is even when I think he’s not paying me any attention he’s picking up so much. The next time I work out he’s busting out moves I didn’t show him! As all my fellow parents know, THEY ARE ALWAYS WATCHING!

Remember: this isn’t an either or. You can and should start helping yourself right now, while also building a love of fitness WITH your kids. And it starts with fun.

MAKE IT FUN

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Kids thrive on fun. So the key to fostering a love of fitness in your children is to raise your kids in a way where exercise summons feelings of excitement, passion, interest, joy, and family connectedness.

And sometimes it’s all about just changing our attitude:

“C’mon, time to go for a walk.”

BOR-RING!

“Oh no kids! All the leaves on the street have turned to lava and we have to get to the park quickly so we can turn on the cooling reactor!”

WOO-HOO!

Learning how to ‘sell’ things to my kids through rephrasing everything as an adventure was a gamechanger moment for me.

This is an important strategy in making their fitness time YOUR fitness time. Even from birth, there’s nothing stopping you being active together. Strollers are great to get walking, but baby carriers are an even better way to get you and your little one out into nature, helping build a close bond, and an early love of fitness and the outdoors. Win, win, win. (Bonus points goes to anyone who can look more gangsta’ than me wearing a baby.)

Don’t get hung up on just walking, particularly as they get older: start letting them choose activities aligned with their own interests.

In my family, ‘we like sportz’ (and we don’t care who knows). Sports are a fantastic way to introduce them to a range of activities and build a love of exercise.

We’ve just signed up our eldest daughter to play netball (it’s seriously the cutest). To her it’s all about playing with friends and having fun, and she doesn’t even realize she’s exercising, building coordination, working on her motor skills, strengthening her muscles and burning off copious amounts of energy.

Plus, as an added bonus feature: she never has any trouble falling straight asleep for the night after netball.

But you don’t have to wait until they’re old enough to join a team to start getting them into sports. My youngest is only 3 months old and we’ve already started encouraging rolling a ‘rattle ball’ around when she has her ‘tummy time’.

Likewise with my two year old, he’s too young for any sort of organized games, but he loves nothing more than kicking the football (Aussie Rules, of course) around in the backyard.

If sports aren’t your bag though, that doesn’t mean you should use it as an excuse to be inactive. There’s no limit to the fun you can have while exercising. Go catch some Pokémon together, play a game of hide and seek, go to the playground, ride a bike, L.A.R.P., it doesn’t matter what you do, just make it fun!

Stop “exercising” and just have fun. 

Use your imagination: just because we’re getting older, doesn’t mean we have to be boring.

How to Talk, and BE OPEN

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Like we mentioned before, kids are like little sponges, taking in everything around them. So don’t just show your kids how to stay active, talk to them about why it’s important to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Don’t get too bogged down in nutrition details or the Latin origins of muscle names, but instead focus on how our actions influence our health.

For the youngins:

“Exercise makes us strong like Superman!”

or

“Eating the right food makes our body happy.”

For those who are a little older:

“The more we move, the stronger our bodies get, which means we can play more.”

“Exercise helps our bodies work and our mind happy. This means the more we move, the happier and healthier we will be.”

Once again, it’s easy enough to SAY these things, but actually DOING THEM YOURSELF is another story.

We must break our own bad habits; this isn’t just regarding exercise. The same goes for eating, smoking, drinking, or whatever else. Keep perspective and send a clear message of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

The early years of a child’s life are vital for setting a good foundation. Start filling their character sheet with the right attributes from the beginning, and provide them with the inventory they need to continually level up throughout the rest of their life.

HOW MUCH, HOW OFTEN?

Gameboy Family

When it comes to being physically active, the short answer is, kids can’t have enough activity. If you’ve got kids, chances are they have room to be a lot more active.

We’d like to think our kids are getting what they need, but studies have shown that children are spending far too much time in front of some sort of screen, and not enough time undertaking physical activity.

To achieve optimum health, social and emotional benefits, the guidelines recommend children aged 5 – 12 should be active for at least 60 minutes every day.

For some kids, it’s easy to achieve this in one block (older ones can achieve this through sports easily), while others may like to build up the 60 minutes throughout the day (for example, 20 minutes walking to and from school, 10 minutes at recess and 30 minutes after school).

If your child is not currently doing an hour of physical activity every day, don’t insist that they instantly start exercising for 60 minutes everyday… this could be a shock to the system and not fun for your child.

Remember, we’re all about the fun. The goal here is to plant the seed of a love for fitness and physical activity, not force our kids to exercise like we remember being forced to eat our broccoli.

  • So, try gradually increasing their activity levels to meet this recommended amount. Swapping just 15 minutes of screen time with some low-key physical play time would be a good start.
  • Try allocating specific (short) time periods for children to use electronic media. Preferably not during daylight hours, so they can be active outside, but also not right before bed!
  • Look at ways you can exercise without realizing it, and slowly introduce similar activities into the lives of your children.

Once again, it’s all about setting a good example, and reducing your own use of electronic media.

If you’re not leading by example, you’re not leading at all.

You have time, and you can do this.

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Being active and growing up with a love of fitness is just something that should happen. Childhood is made for running, jumping, exploring and playing. If we create the right environment, this type of activity comes naturally and effortlessly for our young ones.

But unfortunately, we’re often too busy making excuses and distractions for our children. 

Mothers and Fathers of the Rebellion are working on this every day, and so can you! Becca’s daughter is just four month old. She worked out with her daughter before she found a gym with childcare. Before she was able to find a way to build solo workout time into her life, she did super cute exercises like pushup kisses:

“We go on walks when it’s nice out and when she is playing on the floor sometimes I’ll get down with her and do planks or push-ups or something. It’s great because I get in a mini workout and she loves it and is entertained for a little bit! I’d also like to start hiking with her more and I’ll definitely be getting her a bike seat when she’s old enough so we can bike together too.”

There’s nothing better than playing with your kids, especially roughhousing and getting outside, but in our age of instant gratification, technology, work, and keeping up appearances, it takes considerable effort to instill a love of fitness and physical activity before our short window closes. Before it’s too late, and other habits take hold.

Are we going to be the generation that says ‘Remember the good old days where we’d all sit in the loungeroom on our iPads together?’. I don’t want that, but that seems to be the way we’re going.

But, like all great heroes against great odds know – Luke, Frodo, Harry – we’re not powerless. We can change our futures… so let’s show our kids that life is for living and the more active we are, the more we’re going to enjoy it.

You do have the time. You are capable. You are their role model. You are all they have, and you can do this.

Remember: If you state (indirectly or directly) that your health isn’t a priority, you’re stating that their health isn’t a priority. This is your responsibility, and there are no cheat codes, shortcuts or second lives.

So let’s customize our little characters with the right attributes. Unlockable through leading the way, encouragement, effort, love and a whole lot of fun.

There’s nothing I care more about than my children. So their health and wellbeing is paramount to me. They are the push I need to be better. They help me be better, so I can help them.

So who’s with me in taking every chance we can get to ‘create a character’ that has a love of fitness, wellbeing and life?

As always, we’ve got to help each other out:

How are you leading the way?

What are some of your favourite activities to do as a family?

Has anyone else had any ‘gamechanger’ moments with your kids?

Let us know in the comments.

-Dan

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Stormtrooper pictures via Kristina Alexanderson

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  • http://www.madebynicole.blogspot.com Nicole Maki

    Thanks so much for a great article, Dan. We were very active with our kids birth through 14 but it’s a real struggle with teens. They have incredibly packed schedules and when they get a little downtime gaming and social media are a lot more alluring. My boys are 18, 19 and 20 and they lack the time for long hikes with mom and ‘urban assault’ parkour adventures. I miss the ages and stages you wrote about. So parent to parent I can’t stress enough that you need to build those active memories and habits when they’re young.

  • Jules Chatelain

    Dan this is great! Some inspiration for those who aren’t parents, as well.

    I lived in Sydney for 7 years and drove a middle schooler to netball games … it’s a great sport. I also enjoyed teaching her how to enjoy a rock concert safely (and stay hydrated) … that’s a bit later on … When I miss Aussie Rules I go catch a game by the Portland Steelheads (http://www.portlandfooty.com/).

  • Eldon Grant

    Nice Post! We need to spend time for child than money.
    Check out here for more motivational statement seattle motivational speaker

  • Jon Walker

    I just began my fitness journey last week. My first kid is about to be born in March and I’ve got a long road ahead of me before I can be the example of living healthy. I can’t say my parents put time into making sure that we understood how to take care of our health but I have resolved to attempt to instill this in my kids.

  • Emodb

    Several ideas spring to my mind, partly as somebody who as a child was absolutely hopeless at all sports.

    1. If you have girls then pay particular attention to encouraging them to take part in sport or fitness or healthy activities. (Staci – would you agree?) In the UK (don’t know the stats for the US) there is a particular problem with girls leaving sports or fitness activities as they become teenagers and by the time they are women they’re not doing anything.

    Even if you would not consider that you actively prevent your daughter from taking part, sometimes there is the remains of a cultural bias which encourages boys to be rough and tumble active, take part in team sports, compete to be the best but unconsciously prevents (or tolerates a lower participation rate or accepts more excuses) from girls. I realise that some will see what I’ve written as controversial but it does happen. Sometimes it’s tolerating excuses which matter to young girls (‘I can’t go swimming, I’ve got my time of the month’ ‘I can’t go swimming, I can’t get my hair wet/there’s nowhere to dry it properly/I can’t style it properly’ ‘Oooh I’ll get too sweaty from exercise’.)

    I’m going to stop on this theme now because actually I think there’s a whole separate article in there and I hope it may have prompted anybody at NF to think about the other things that put off young girls from sport.

    2. The article doesn’t take into account what to do with the impact of school sports on a kid’s level of love of fitness. I’m in the UK so I don’t know whether US schools have mandatory PE (physical education) lessons for all school children. Schools do have it here in the UK and I have nothing but seriously unhappy memories about doing fitness actvities. I could have written the entire article in a completely different way. I associate sport and fitness with nothing but pain, cold, wet, failure from the age of 5 upwards (constantly, at every type of activity – I am not kidding). Being considered a loser in competition for 13 years at the most impressionable time of life has harmed my self-confidence (although I have overcome it to a large extent but still have to consciously remind myself of other ways in which I am successful.)

    There are things which my parents could have done to turn things around but my mother was also uninterested in sport (she too had been rubbish at sport activities and she also had a general belief that sport was not so important as it was not especially feminine and also because academic success was prized more highly in my family – sport and fitness was something that could be dropped.)

    I have turned things around myself now (or am in the process of doing so, thanks to NF) but encouraging kids so that they don’t end up in the physical blobness that I am in and so that they see sport as something they can do is dear to my heart.

    Two things I wish somebody (parents or teachers) had introduced me to were the concept of ‘Personal Best’ and the idea of breaking down activities into their component parts and practising till they got better. Sort of what NF is all about really. But with kids it’s often assumed (and I think it is in this article) that fitness activities just come naturally to kids and they’ll be good at them, enjoy them and be able to do them from scratch just because they are young and flexible and full of energy.

    I was terrified of heights (still am) and terrified of being upside down. I could not get off the bottom rung of the climbing frame. It was not until I was 14 that I finally decided that I was going to confront my absolute cold hard terror of doing a forward roll (that had resulted in a panic attack in gym class). I finally taught myself how to break that exercise down into constituent parts and practice doing each bit until I was comfortable with it. it wasn’t until age 15 that I was finally able to hang upside down from a rail and pull myself up to it (a fantastic abs exercise that if I had been able to do years earlier my abs would not be in the state they’re in now!!)

    I was put into the swimming pool at school aged 5 and promptly sank. I was scared of ever going in again and did not go in until I was 9 or 10. I was 11 before I got my 10meter swimming badge (most kids get it at 7 or 8). It wasn’t until I was 14 that I actually learned how to swim anywhere near properly (my dad finally taught me at the local pool).

    I was always, always a slow runner (still am and don’t enjoy the activity). My earliest memory was coming last in a race at 5 years old and it didn’t improve much over my school career.

    I wish that somebody had been there who would have held me back from competing against others (instead of making me do it) and that they had instead got me to focus on my personal best and levelling up. The article needs to make clear: if your child’s enjoyment of fitness is being undermined by their abilities, fears, performance in formal sports activities it will cause them to give up participating. As a parent you can help by getting them to focus on improving their own achievement (not measuring against everybody else in class) and breaking down or practising something that the child finds hard or frightening until it no longer is scary for them.

    Sorry – it’s a long post and rather all over the place but I hope you get the picture.

  • Rebellious Taurian

    Amazingly written! You have no idea how much I support the idea of training the kids from an early age. It upsets me how today’s children’s only hobby is social networking or snapchatting. They gotta get out of their shells and see the real world, get ready to face the challenges, and how can they do any of that when they aren’t physically prepared!

    I read a similar blog at http://www.planetgainz.com/ sometime back, highly appreciate you guys talking about this issue.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Well done. Great point, even if we’re not parents we can still influence the little ones around us. Can’t wait to take my kids skanking at a ska punk show. It’s also great to see the greatest sport in the world (Go Crows) spreading to the US, perhaps I should move there, where I may have a chance of making a team. Thanks for the kind words.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Thanks Nicole. I can’t stress this enough also. I’m actually super worried about my 3 growing up and not wanting to hang out with dad anymore (even though I did exactly that to my parents in my teens). That’s just how life goes I guess, so while we can it’s important to make memories last forever.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Congratulations mate, welcome to the club! Start practicing your lame jokes and crappy magic tricks now. Best of luck, and keep us posted on how it all goes.

  • http://www.weekendwarriorzone.com/ Kris

    Great tips! It’s fun seeing your kids grow up healthy, and enjoy exercise and eating well. We also encourage our kids to try different sports & activities to find the right ones for them (not us) and to step out of their comfort zone once in a while. Just last night my teenage daughter went to a tai kwon do class (alone) for the first time, great stuff seeing our love of fitness rub off on our children!

  • http://thefastmetabolismdietcommunity.com Roxanne Mosby

    Thank you for this inspiring, uplifting, and eye-opener post, Dan! That rephrasing you did hit me hard. I’ve always been having a hard time engaging my children into exercising and fitness. Good thing though that my eldest (who is 12 years old, btw) is now into swimming, but as with my toddler, it’s been a challenge for me. I will try to apply the tips you gave here!

  • Dan Schmidt

    So glad I could help, let us know how it all goes.

  • Dan Schmidt

    That’s awesome Kris, excellent points too. Too often parents will push their kids to get into ‘their’ sport so they can relive their former glory, and while it works for some, for a lot of others, it doesn’t create the best relationship around exercise. I love golf more than any other sport, and naturally I’m going to encourage my children to have a go, but if they say it’s not for them, but they really want to get into stamp collecting, I’ll happily walk them straight down to the post office. All the best mate.

  • http://jadenomadtravelwear.com/ Karen Chow

    Great article Dan! I found with my son, when he was younger, he was dragging me outside all the time. Now that he’s 7, and discovered the joy of gaming on our tablet, he’s not dragging me outside anymore. It kind of sucks, so now I have to motivate him. 😛

  • SegaGenitals

    As a young-ish dad with a 15 year old (gasp), I can attest to the let down when suddenly hanging with dad is not cool anymore. It makes me value my experiences with my 2 year old so much more, knowing that the hero worship won’t last forever.

  • Jessica Marshall

    I know how you feel EModb. Which is why it is critical that parents lead the example, especially for girls. I have ambivalent memories for PE, what tainted it for me was the complete lack of ability streaming and the bizarre fetish for team games. As a late developer with poor coordination you can guess how much fun secondary PE was for me.
    However, I did martial arts, swimming and walking everywhere which was important damage limitation between a peer group hostile to female athleticism and school PE.

  • Angus Podgorny

    Nice article. I would add to not expect things to go the way you planned – we’ve had what was supposed to be us hitting tennis balls around at the tennis court turn into a relay race with tennis balls where the grownups had to run backwards. The boys loved when I rolled a 1 on my balance check. The more control over direction they have the more they are likely to keep going.

    Don’t underestimate martial arts as a gateway drug for fitness. For my nine year old it was the first activity he absolutely loved. Aside from climbing trees that is. I started with him so he’d have a practice partner at home. (My youngest doesn’t have sufficient self control yet for me to trust him with any kind of fighting skills.)

    Turning exercise time into family time really helps. We are lucky that both boys like tennis so that’s a go to for us. We also got a yoga pose game to play with the boys – you spin and get different cards/poses.

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