Encouraging Healthy Habits: How to Motivate Your Child to Exercise

This Labor day weekend, as I suggested to my 12 year old daughter (who thinks she’s 21!), if we should go for a nice long walk by the Charles river in Boston, she just gave me the “look”. As a board-certified internal medicine physician and a mom, I understand the importance of instilling healthy habits in our children, especially during National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Childhood obesity is a growing concern with roughly 19.7% affected according to the CDC, and one of the best ways to combat it is by encouraging regular physical activity. However, in today’s digital age we can’t just say get off your lazy asses, turn off your screens and get moving, we need to be less critical and more compassionate and definitely a lot more creative as to how we approach this subject.

That had me thinking of how to best approach this, and I decided to jot down my thoughts of what I’ve seen work for most children, what the evidence suggests and how we can make it seem like it’s their idea! I am a huge fan of James Cleary’s book Atomic Habits where he talks about the Four Laws of Behavior Change to build better habits- make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfying. And it’s no different for children.

So, let’s explore a few ways of how to motivate your child to exercise effectively while considering their emotions and preferences, shall we?

1. Lead by Example: Every parent would know this, children are like monkeys! (I mean it in the most loving way possible). They often learn by observing their parents and mirror us. Show them the value of regular exercise by incorporating it into your daily routine. Go for family walks, bike rides, or even join a local sports league together. Your enthusiasm for exercise will naturally rub off on your child. We have given our evening walks (weather permitting) a special name, “whiny walks”, as they usually would begin with some whining! Now I hear my daughter joke and laugh about it with her group of friends that we have an evening ritual of whiny walks and she loves the idea.

2. Make It Fun: Exercise should be enjoyable, not a chore. Kids hate walking on a treadmill! Find activities that your child genuinely likes and encourage them to keep going, or make fun-associations with exercise! Perhaps, it’s letting your child watch the latest season of their favorite netflix show or youtuber so they are in fact looking forward to those 30 mins. Whether it’s dancing, swimming, hiking, or playing a sport, they should be having fun and feel as if it’s an engaging experience. This will not only motivate them but also create positive associations with physical activity.

3. Set Realistic Goals: Set achievable fitness goals with your child. These goals can be as simple as increasing the number of steps they take each day or learning a new skill in their chosen activity. Celebrate their achievements to boost their confidence and motivation. I generally opt for giving a $20 Amazon or Sephora gift card for two weeks of consistent activity at least six days of the week. Did I mention, somehow Sephora is almost every teenage girl’s second home these days?!

4. Create a Routine: Establish a consistent exercise routine. Just like any other daily activity, exercise becomes a habit when done regularly. Schedule dedicated exercise time, and make it a non-negotiable part of your child’s day. Generally evenings work out the best before dinner.

5. Limit Screen Time: Excessive screen time is often linked to sedentary behavior. Encourage your child to spend less time in front of screens and more time being active. Set reasonable limits and provide alternative activities like board games, puzzles, or outdoor play. And if this is being met with some resistance and grumpiness, use it to your favor and allow a show to run in the background while they exercise!

6. Involve Friends: Kids love spending time with their friends. Encourage them to exercise with their peers, whether through team sports, playdates, or group fitness classes. Exercising with friends can make physical activity more enjoyable and social. The best way is to have them play a sport with their friends and then it’ll be a challenge to make them even miss a day!

7. Educate About Benefits: This is a MUST! Knowledge can be a powerful motivator. Children are by nature very curious and if you help your child understand the many health benefits of exercise, they’ll actually be a lot more open to it.. Explain how it strengthens their muscles and bones, boosts their mood, and enhances their overall well-being.

8. Variety is Key: Keep things fresh by introducing a variety of physical activities. This prevents boredom and allows your child to explore different interests. It also reduces the risk of overuse injuries associated with repetitive activities. The pandemic did open doors to a lot more virtual classes, so sign them up for virtual karate classes, or dance classes if that’s an option.

9. Be Supportive, Not Pushy: While it’s essential to encourage your child to exercise, avoid being overly pushy or critical. This never goes well, and yet somehow my husband still does not understand! Children like to think they are in control of their lives, and don’t like to be assigned tasks all the time. Offer gentle encouragement and praise their efforts, even if progress is slow. A supportive and positive approach is more likely to yield lasting results.

10. Make Safety a Priority: Always prioritize safety during physical activities. Ensure your child wears appropriate gear, such as helmets for biking or padding for contact sports. Educate them about the importance of warming up and stretching to prevent injuries.

I know it’s not easy, believe me it’s a constant struggle in our “whiny walk family” as well, but motivating your child to exercise is not only crucial for their physical health but also their emotional well-being. Make this National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month a starting point and remember that the goal is not just to prevent childhood obesity but also to instill healthy habits and a positive relationship with exercise that will serve them well throughout their lives.  As they say- “People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”

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