How do you influence kids to exercise?

Written by Hyde Phillips

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How do you influence kids to exercise?

“Daddy, can I do some exercises this morning?” – Davina, 7

Considering the ever growing, “please don’t mention it again because we’ve heard it so many times” epidemic of childhood obesity, I have become very interested in what makes kids tick when it comes to exercise.  The above quote was made by a seven-year-old girl during a session with her dad, and inspired me to write this article.  Exactly how do we inspire kids to make exercise a normal part of their lives?

I’ve had the pleasure of working with lots of mums and dads in my personal training career.  It’s always great to see those who juggle a full time job with a busy home life start making changes in their lifestyle, and gradually figure out ways of fitting exercise into their daily routine.  Fitting exercise into a double-routine is clearly why many mums and dads come to us for help.

One of the most satisfying outcomes of the work we do as personal trainers, though, isn’t actually what we turn up to do in the first place;  it is the mysterious and infectious ripple effect that one parent can have on his or her entire family.

According to researchers at Duke Medicine, “Kids whose mums encourage them to exercise and eat well, and model those healthy behaviours themselves, are more likely to be active and healthy eaters”.  From a remarkably young age children copy their parents as their foundational learning experience.  I find this to be very revealing in terms of a child’s vulnerability, keenness to learn, and innate connection with his or her parents; it’s also a very scary message that highlights our absolute responsibility as role models to our kids – present or future.  It’s no surprise, then, that our exercise and lifestyle habits are going to fall firmly into this category and heavily influence the behaviours of the children who look up to us for guidance.

Now I must confess that I am not a parent myself, nor am I a scholar on the subject.  But, I have witnessed, on numerous occasions, the effect that my clients have on their own kids through a surprisingly broad age range – and with surprising blatancy.

Influencing kids to exercise

A couple of weeks ago a client’s wife showed me a video recording of their one-and-a-bit year old daughter doing little squats, as seen during one of her dad’s PT sessions (see picture).  She had no idea why she was doing them, of course, but saw her dad and simply wanted to have a go.  (The geeks among you will have noticed her exemplary posture).  I’ve done mini Boxercise rounds with kids who’ve seen their parents in action and begged to have a go. One little lad (both of whose parents I train) is a little bit obsessed with the resistance band I bring to sessions.  Ok, I’m sure getting tangled up in it and rolling around on the garden lawn cackling to yourself doesn’t necessarily constitute exercise, but these little ones are fascinated!  The list goes on…

I’ve recently started working with another client whose three delightful young daughters  like to come and watch (or do) the exercises with their dad.  (Our sessions are often concluded with a family plank-off).  One morning the girls were running late for school and under pressure from both parents, but were so enamoured by their dad and his exercise programme that they kept running back in and pleading to exercise with him:  “Daddy, can I do the exercises this morning?”  What a charming, but powerful illustration of how influential parents can be on their kids.  It’s basically buy one Personal Training package and get a family size package for free!

I am a huge advocate of encouraging children to participate in school and extra-curricular activities, play outside with their friends, and have the value of exercise and healthy living consistently communicated to them.  I’ve even trained a handful of young people on a one to one basis.   These things surely play an integral part in instilling in kids a healthy attitude towards exercise and eating.  BUT – in addition to these important ideals – there seems to be a hidden and elusive power behind actually modelling this behaviour, especially during those early years of childhood.

I’ve heard it suggested many times how deceivingly perceptive kids can be.  I should imagine this becomes particularly apparent when you’re caught out, and you hear your five year old repeat a swear word that you said once – under your breath – months earlier.

Though admittedly slightly comedic, this does expose a darker side to all this.  I consider it a major challenge to face the fact that kids who grow up eating junk food, and only ever seeing exercise on TV, stand a devastatingly hampered chance of learning the value of (and taking responsibility for) their own health and well-being.  The double blow here is that, in my experience, it’s not simply a case of re-education.  The values, beliefs and very identity of kids are forged during these crucial formative years.  Learning new habits as an adult can be a battle against everything they’ve grown up to believe about food, exercise, and themselves.

Whilst this may sound a bit gloomy, the overall message here is actually blindingly positive.  If one parent can affect their kids so dramatically (as witnessed in mere glimpses by a non-parent), how much more fruitful would it be for a young person to grow up witnessing exercise as a normal, everyday fact of life?

A very special thanks to Russell Tait and Daven Bodhani, and their families, for modelling for us and being willing to feature in our blog!

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