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To Get Kids Moving, Don’t Call It “Exercise”

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Exercise is a bad word.

At least for many children, exercise sounds like hard work. It sound boring. It sounds like something a person has to do, not something she wants to do.

If you’re having trouble selling your children on being more active, it might be because you’re suggesting they go get some exercise. Try calling it something else.

Talk about doing specific things that are fun. Shooting baskets. Playing with the dog. Seeing how many pull-ups you can do. Tossing around a Frisbee. No one ever said getting exercise meant doing calisthenics. There’s a lot of other ways to be active for half an hour or more that make the time fly by.

In addition, avoid tying being active to a goal, like losing weight or even getting stronger. The way to make being active a regular part of your child’s life is to let it be valuable for its own sake. Because it’s fun. Because it feels good.

Many of us have made some resolutions for the new year, resolutions that might have included getting our kids more active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that every child should engage in active play, preferably outdoors, for an hour every day. We know this is good for our families.

In addition, during the cold, dark winter months, we feel more like hibernating than being active. Cuddling in a blanket with a good book or the television seems more attractive than walking around the neighborhood. But everyone eats better, sleeps better, and is more alert and even smarter when they’ve got the blood moving and shaken out the cobwebs.

How to do it without assigning “exercise”?

  1. Make a list. Sit down with your kids and brainstorm as many ways of being active as you can come up with. Limit yourselves to ideas that are actually possible from home – no point is listing “go skiing” if that requires hours of time, a lift ticket, and a drive to the slopes. Be inclusive. Gardening and cleaning the garage together count.
  2. Include indoor ideas as well as outdoor ones. Jogging through the house, up and down the stairs,  to loud music and marking off each circuit as you pass the kitchen can be just as much fun as a jog around the block. Try dancing. Even lifting weights can be fun if it’s done for fun, not for “exercise.”
  3. Aim for being “active” not for being tired. There’s plenty to be gained without needing to feel any pain. All activity is good and leads to more activity later. Just get your kids moving, don’t worry too much about how hard or how fast.
  4. Commit to a span of time each day. Maybe 20 minutes, maybe 30, with the option always to keep playing or keep going longer if you want. If you can, establish a dependable time every day for activity – maybe before dinner. But getting some activity in each day is more important than keeping to a schedule.
  5. Have fun. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. Be active in a way that makes you and your kids happy.

Activity is good for everybody, and your children might find it easier to be active if you’re active along with them. Go for it. Make this a family thing.

Just don’t call it “exercise.”


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.