Equip your child for a lifetime of physical activity

July 21, 2017
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Isaiah McCallum, age 8, walking with a friend.

Time spent in childhood doing active play is valuable, helping to build lifelong habits. As caregivers and parents, we all want kids to grow up to be active, healthy adults. However, meeting the daily recommendation of at least one hour per day of physical activity may seem unreachable or too structured. As a registered dietitian, I suggest families approach physical activity the same way as healthy eating; by teaming up with their child.  

Parents and caregivers often feel 100% responsible for their child's choices when it comes to eating and moving. Be assured that research shows that most children are naturals when it comes to regulating their intake and physical activities. Given the right opportunities and structure, children feel free to explore the type of active play that works for their own bodies. This independence of choosing the activities they prefer helps to broker parental trust of their child's instincts.

To best promote regular physical activity throughout a child's life, try dividing up the responsibility between parent or caregiver and child. Adults are in charge of providing regular opportunities for physical activities. Holly McCallum, a mother of an 8-year old, says, "I encourage my child to be active every day by doing things he already loves." Her son Isaiah is legally blind from a genetic disorder, ocular albinism. Holly continues, "Isaiah has been involved in all sorts of services and sports. I have tried really hard to provide variety for Isaiah in physical activity. He has had hockey and swim lessons, flag football, rock climbing and more! ‘I can't do that because I am blind' isn't in his vocabulary. Instead, we say, ‘How can you find a way to do this since you are blind.'  We love the YMCA and their classes and culture of inclusion."  Holly does a great job inviting Isaiah to safely explore physical activities.

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George Corrales, age 5, on a bowling adventure. Credit: Leanna Bre Photography, 2017.

Adults should allow their child to be in charge of whether they engage in active play and the timeframe. Some children, like George Corrales, are naturally very active. George, now five, is a graduate of the Swedish NICU. He has a sensory processing disorder. His mother shared with me their challenge of balancing independent active play with rest and with family activities. Recently, they played football at the park and went bowling on a rainy day. George has also attended a pre-school that offers many outdoor activities. I appreciate that his parents allow him to direct the quantity of active play but also provide the direction so his experiences are varied. By allowing children to control some aspects of their physical activity, this naturally paves the way for them to take on more responsibility for their health as they age.

Children also learn readily from adults modeling healthy behaviors. So many of my adult patients tell me they continue with the same health behaviors learned from their parents long ago, such as a Thanksgiving walk or clearing their plate.  Caregivers can set positive examples by engaging in their favorite form of exercise regularly. The way adults discuss their own health goals also matters. For instance, it's a good practice to take a neutral stance toward exercise, and discuss it in terms of "health," versus weight or appearance. Working on our own body image, food or exercise issues is another way we can positively influence the children in our lives.  

When a child receives a medical diagnosis like pre-diabetes or obesity, it is natural to want to push physical activities beyond what is healthful in the long run. Unfortunately, having adult-level expectations like structured gym time for children or Fitbit goals can often backfire. Adolescence is an especially vulnerable time for developing disordered eating and exercise habits. I encourage parents and caregivers to take a more long-term viewpoint: continue offering daily opportunities for movement and support your child in what works best for them. Make one hour per day of physical activity a priority for the whole family so your child feels included instead of isolated. Several activities throughout the day of 10 minutes or longer work best and the goal is easy to meet over the course of a day. 

In order to be physically active, some children may require therapies to meet their unique needs. Holly encourages fellow parents, "Isaiah has had seven years of physical therapy, five years of occupational therapy, and now consults an orientation and mobility specialist to help with his independent living skills. I see those services as vital to Isaiah learning how to problem-solve some of the barriers he faces." Check with your health care provider to see what services may benefit your child and to get a referral.  

When it comes to moving (and eating) healthfully, remember this is a partnership between you and your child. Focus on daily habits and making positive memories with physical activity to captivate their interest over the long haul.

For further learning:

Ellyn Satter Institute, Divisions of Responsibility
NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association), Developing & Modeling Positive Body Image:

Topics: Kids, Nutrition