Teaching Children the Value of Exercise

It was a winter day with a high of just less than 35ºF in Chattanooga Tennessee. Despite the bleak weather, I decided to take a walk with my 2 year old and 9 month old. Bundled, hatted, and gloved we sallied forth. It was cold, even pushing the baby’s stroller I was barely staying warm. Amy (my 2 year old) danced ahead excitedly. Every now and then she would stop long enough for me to catch up. Never one to like hats, she soon started begging to take hers off. I told her it was cold and she needed to keep it on. With a bit of protest, on it stayed. A few minutes later, the sun started trying to peak through the clouds. I pointed it out to Amy.

“Doesn’t the warm sun feel nice?” I asked.

“Yes, Mom,” she immediately shot back. “It’s saying, ‘Amy take your hat off!'”

As we continued our walk, I thought about our little exchange. My daughter’s running around was good. Exercise is one very important way to ensure my child has a healthy body—and thus a healthy mind. As parents, we are very concerned about our children’s mental development. We teach our kids baby signs, participate in kinder-music programs, and send our toddlers off to preschool. However, medical research shows that a healthy body is JUST as important as a stimulating environment for mind development.

Thankfully for toddlers, exercise is all they do—it’s the most active periods of one’s life! However, as children grow older, physical activity has the potential to drop off exponentially—especially in our Western Culture. The problem has multiple facets: decreased recess time, increased access to screens (smart phones, television, computers), unsafe neighborhoods, and single-parent households, to name just a few. So how do you combat the doldrums and get kids moving? Below are 10 tips to help get (or keep) your kids active: [1],[2]

  1. Make it fun. No kid is going to be willing do something they don’t like. Some kids thrive on organized sports; others prefer dance, karate, or swimming. But something as simple as a trip to the park or playground can also provide hours of active entertainment. Whatever activity you decide to do, make sure it’s something your kids will enjoy.
  2. Buy a few basic active toys. For older kids this could be a basketball, soccer ball, beach ball, jump rope, or a bike. You really don’t need to spend a lot of money. For example, you can find excellent bikes at consignment sales or thrift stores for very reasonable prices. Jump ropes are only a few dollars at Wal-Mart.
  3. Establish a regular routine. Make exercise just as routine as eating dinner or doing homework—after all, it is just as important for mental development. Those who schedule time for exercise are much more likely to do it!
  4. Build activity into your day. When shopping, park at the farthest parking spot. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Look for ways to get extra steps into your kids’s day.
  5. Give your kids chores to do. Vacuuming is an excellent exercise! Other great exercises include raking leaves, cleaning toilets, picking up toys, or mopping the floor. Besides the exercise, kids actually feel proud to take part in keeping a home looking great.
  6. Play with your children. Kids love adult interaction. Something as simple as freeze tag or hide-and-seek can get the whole family engaged providing quality parent-child bonding time.
  7. Use exercise as a reward, not a punishment. Exercise needs to be positively reinforced, not used as a negative consequence!
  8. Get your kids outside as much as possible. If it’s safe, send them out to play in your yard. Otherwise, take them to a local park. Not only will they be getting exercise, but sunlight and fresh air—all important for healthy bodies.
  9. Limit screen time to less than two hours per day, period. Screen time includes computers, video games, and television. Replace this time with outdoor playtime, family time, household chores, or organized sport.
  10. Finally, model good behavior. If you want your child to exercise, set a good example. Children will model what they see, not what they hear.

It’s never to early or late to start an exercise routine. I took my daughter for her first walk when she was only 3 days old! My great-grandmother didn’t start an exercise routine until she was 80 (and then she continued it faithfully until past 100 years old!). What matters is starting and then sticking with it!

Amy finished our walk with her hat off. She ran almost the entire ¾ mile arriving home with rosy cheeks. As we took coats and hats off inside our warm house, Amy announced, “Mommy, that was fun! Let’s do that again!”

“Yes Amy.” I replied. “We will!”


[1] http://www.webmd.com/parenting/features/kid-fitness-when-your-child-wont-exercise

[2] http://www.active.com/baseball/articles/how-to-get-your-kids-to-exercise

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Rachel Nelson MD

graduated from Loma Linda University and completed a pediatric residency at UC Davis. She has a passion for helping children reach their full potential. She is married to a colorectal surgeon and together they have two children: Amy and Michael. Dr. Nelson enjoys playing outside with her kids, gardening, and music.

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