The idea of writing about family fitness as I see it has been something I have been mulling over for a long time. This will be the first part of what I intend to be an ongoing and evolving project. Parenting never ends, and that's exactly how I think fitness should be viewed.
Here's what I'm thinking:
As parents, above all else we want our kids to be healthy, and coming in at a close second is that we want them to be happy (as in "emotionally sound"). We also know that exercise is good for both your physical and mental health. So you’re kids are healthier and happier when they exercise regularly (so are adults). It's that simple.
However, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned as a trainer, is that you can’t force people to workout. Perhaps you can get away with it for a while when your children are young, but I think it’s better to let that happen organically.
I am a big proponent of leading by example as a trainer, and as a parent. So this is the approach I’ve taken with our kids. I’ve never once told them to “workout” or that they should workout; they just started mimicking Jess and I. We’ve got little 3lb kettle bells at home and when they see us working out, they grab their kettlebells and try to do whatever exercise we’re doing. They’ve done this so much to the point that I’ve caught them by themselves, completely unprompted, “playing” with their kettlebells in the backyard. This is exactly what exercise should be like - play.
It’s a joy to be able to do something physical. There's a meme floating around with the quote, “exercise is a celebration of what the body can do, not a punishment for what you ate.” and I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s a very healthy attitude to have about working out and that is a mindset that I try to pass onto the kids.
Of course in this day and age there’s a lot of things to compete with the already short attention span of children. Electronics has got a firm grasp on everyone’s time, adults included. We don’t have strict policy’s (yet) regarding how much they can watch TV or play on the tablet, but we do keep a close eye on it. One thing is for certain is that it helps to have a few different techniques to get the kids outside and doing something active.
This is the best option for getting kids to do something - do it with them. Young children especially want the attention of their parents. It breaks my heart to see families out at a restaurant and the parent(s) are so into their smart phone that the child just sits there eating dinner alone. But I digress. The point is little kids want to be with their parents and do what they do. This makes the first decade of a child's life the perfect time to instill healthy exercise habits in them.
When you “workout” with your kids, and make it fun, you create lasting memories for your family and help your kids associate physical activity with good times. We all know how we like to revisit the things we enjoyed in our childhood. So by coupling exercise with family bonding time we help to instill healthy habits as something we just do, and hopefully, that we’ll always do.
However, working out as a family brings it’s own set of challenges, especially if you have multiple children at very different ages. What is appropriate for a 10 year old may not be appropriate for a 5 year old. In this case, you should try to accommodate the youngest - it’s easier to scale the workout up than it is to scale it down. Also, the younger child will want to do what their older sibling is doing, and if they can’t, it could be demotivate them.
I should also mention that I am using the term “workout” very loosely here. There should be more play than structure with little kids. This is also about them, not you, so don’t expect to get much of a workout yourself (unless of course you are less athletic than your child). There will be a time for you to workout alone (with them watching, or not) but when you’re doing the family fitness thing, again, make sure that whatever you’re doing the “least” of you can participate in as well.
Your most basic form of exercise that almost everyone can do after the age of 2 is walk/run. We take our kids to the local high school track for our family workouts. We go at times when there are no sporting events and with no crowds and wide open space, the kids can run free and far away from us (or we can run from them) and we can still keep an eye on them.
Naturally there will be competition among them, who could run the fastest, or who did the most laps. We always congratulate them on anything they’re proud of, meanwhile trying to encourage good sportsmanship and deter gloating, but if anyone gets their feelings hurt about “losing” our response is always along the lines of “keep trying” or “train harder” or “you’re getting better”.
How children view effort is an important topic of discussion. In the book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success author Carol Dweck explores the “growth mindset” vs the “fixed mindset”. Basically a person with a fixed mindset believes that you’re either good at something or you’re not; that talent is a fixed trait. People with a fixed mindset think that if you’re good at something then it should be easy, and therefore view effort as something associated with being not good at something. People with a fixed mindset will avoid effort as a means to remain “good” at certain things.
People with a growth mindset equate effort with growth and believe that you can get better at just about anything. In the growth mindset, trying harder = success, and that’s the kind of mindset we should try to foster in our children. You can do this by always praising their effort, not the things that they are good at. In fact, offering praise for things they are good at could contribute to the fixed mindset. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, demonstrates this many times over with her research that is cited in the book. This is a good read and it changed the way I parent. Highly recommended.
So when your kid tries something, compliment them on that. Let them know that effort is something that will lead them to success in anything, not just athletics. Praise them on their ability and you risk jeopardizing their motivation to improve said ability.
That’s why no matter if our kids win or lose, are good or not good, we highlight their effort (or lack thereof). It’s always about how hard they try, not only the results.
“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” - William Faulkner
Of course, we aren’t always able to exercise with our children. We’ve got more responsibilities and they’ve got more energy for it, so you’ve got to send them out to do some stuff on their own too. It’s also important for them to be self sufficient in this regard. They need to find things to do, and they will if you give them the opportunity.
We live in a relatively rural area with a big yard and no high traffic streets, so we can send the kids outside with minimal supervision. The older ones (5-9) are free to climb trees, play on the swing and run around the yard by themselves. Maybe they’ll play ball or they may just pick up a kettlebell. I don’t really care what they do, as long as they’re outside they’ll get the exercise they need.
The toddler’s (2-4 years) need some alone time too, but not necessarily unsupervised. They’re going to fall down and get hurt. I’ve got a more lenient approach than my wife here in that I don’t help them or coddle them when they fall down and cry. If it’s serious, obviously that’s a different story, but I don’t rush to their aid for scrapes and bruises. "Walk it off" is the response you get from Dad. I think it’s important that they learn early how to dust themselves off and get back into the fray. [Helicopter parents beware - you might be raising a cry baby or a child who is more focused on what they can’t do rather than what they can do.]
Structure is another term that is used very loosely depending on how old the kids are. Basically the younger the child the less structure you will have (or want to try to have). I would say for anyone pre-K or younger, unless you’re a professional or have a degree in elementary education, don’t even worry about it.
Keep things simple, like “Follow the Leader” or “Simon Says”. You can’t go wrong with calisthenics but if you want to step it up a notch get some cones and an agility ladder (or you can use sidewalk chalk to draw these things).
Another option is to set up obstacle course. Again, it doesn’t have to be too elaborate; a few palettes to jump on, a few things to crawl under, a piece of lumber to balance on. Get creative. Remember that whatever you do, make it fun.
There are plenty of other options for structured physical activity for children. Martial Arts schools generally have kids programs starting at 4 or 5 years old. There’s also dancing, swimming, climbing, gymnastics programs and bouncy houses; take your pick.
Sports are a great way for kids to stay active. Not only that but there are many valuable lessons to be learned from being involved in sports. Confidence, character, teamwork, ethics, the importance of practice, discipline, determination, sportsmanship; all very good things to be gained from sport. A combination of both individual and team sports is recommended as there are unique benefits to each.
I feel that a word of caution is necessary when it comes to sports. First of all, the training is different because the goal has shifted from “exercise” to the demands of the sport and ultimately “winning.” Health and fitness is no longer the priority, which is ok, as long as that doesn’t come to the determent of the athlete.
There is a trend in youth sports where well-meaning but overzealous parents and coaches are advocating more rigorous training regimens for young athletes. Many kids play on travel teams where the level of competition is higher and there is an expectation to play year-round.
Of course no parent or coach would knowingly endanger an athlete, but I do want to draw attention to the fact that most youth sport coaches are volunteers. They should be commended on their involvement (without them there would be no youth sport), however, it should be kept in mind that most are not experts in athletic training, human performance or sports science.
I believe this has led to improper training methods in youth sports. The rise in injury rates supports this notion. Tommy Johns elbow surgery has been called an “epidemic” and is directly correlated to too much competitive pitching.¹² There is also evidence that shows increases early sport specialization and year-round training and competition have led to an increase in the frequency of ACL tears.³ In other words, kids are training too much. Even professional athletes have an off-season (as well as a pre and post season). It’s unreasonable to expect children to train like adults (or more than adults). Do not fall victim to the “more is better” mentality.
And if you're one of these parents that get riled up to the point of cursing or fighting at your kids sporting events; get a grip! I'm willing to bet you're self-conscious about your own athleticism and you're living vicariously through your kid. More training would probably do you good.
In summary, I believe as long as the adults act right and the kids are given a reasonable workload, the advantages of sport far outweigh any potential risks. Encourage your kids to play a variety of sports, you never know which ones they will enjoy until they try it. Sports will also be where your child starts to separate from you and eventually surpass you physically. Hopefully they will play all throughout high school and into college, but keep in mind the probability is remarkably low that they will play at the collegiate level, and going on to become professionals, even lower.
Unfortunately for many people, once high school sports are over, so is their physical activity. That's why my focus in Family Fitness is to help parents instill healthy habits in their children at a young age so that hopefully it will extend past their glory days in school. The next article in this series will address ways that adults can get their own exercise routine back on schedule and keep it there.