When Getting Kids to Exercise More, the Apple Won’t Walk From the Tree

when parents get more exercise so do their kidsJust about every discussion of childhood obesity includes a recommendation that parents set a good example for their kids by getting more exercise. But are our children really paying any attention to what we do? According to Kristen Holm, Assistant Professor of Medicine at National Jewish Health, the answer is a definite Yes. When parents increase their own levels of physical activity, their children do the same.

Holm and her colleagues tracked 83 families that were enrolled in a special program aimed at keeping overweight and obese 7-14-year olds from putting on even more weight. The researchers gave parents and children pedometers and asked them to walk an extra 2,000 steps per day. When the parents achieved that goal, their kids logged an average of 2,117 extra steps. But when the parents fell short, so did the kids.

As you might expect, parents and kids were more likely to hit the mark on weekends—typically a time when families are up and around and more likely to exercise than during the week. But what was especially interesting is that the effects generally didn’t last. In other words, walking 2,000 extra steps one day didn’t make anyone—adult or child—more likely to do the same thing the next day or the day after that.

Bottom line? If you want to change behavior, you can’t just do it once and hope it’ll happen again by itself.  Exercise needs to be a part of our daily lives, whether you want to do it or not.

Drop and Give Me Twenty

Dear Mr. Dad. It seems like every other day there’s a scary story in the news about childhood obesity and diabetes and more. What I rarely hear about is what to actually do about it—aside from “eat less junk and do more exercise.” I don’t find that terribly helpful. Can you offer some specific ideas on how to get my kids healthier?

A: Definitely. Before we start, though, I encourage you to stop thinking in terms of, “get my kids healthier,” and instead talk about “get healthier as a family.” As I’m sure you’ve discovered in other situations, children often pay more attention to what you do than what you say. So when it comes to diet and exercise, you’ll need to model the behavior you’re trying to encourage.

As for nutrition, in case you missed it, the food pyramid is out and MyPlate is in. The simple idea is that all of us—kids and adults—should be eating more fruits and vegetables, a bit less protein, grains, and dairy. Since the exact amounts of those categories depend on each person’s sex, weight, height, and activity level, visit choosemyplate.gov for some tools to help you calculate what’s right for you and your children.

Now for exercise. The bottom line is that most of us need more of it. But defining “more” is as hard as defining “good nutrition.” As a guideline, children should get 60 minutes of exercise every day and adults should get 30. Alternatively, adults should try to walk 8,500–10,000 steps per day, while children should shoot for 10,000-13,000. Here are some ideas to help you reach these goals.

  • Use technology as an incentive. Call me crazy, but I think the calls for kids to “just say no to technology” are completely unrealistic. In fact, our kids need to be tech savvy to succeed as adults. That said, moderation is key. And tradeoffs. Len Saunders, author of Keeping Kids Fit, suggests that children earn non-homework-related tech time by banking physical activity time. He suggests a 2-to-1 ratio–an hour of exercise earns you 30 minutes on the DS or Wii. You can hear an interview I did with Saunders at mrdad.com/radio (search for Saunders).
  • Be flexible. Those 10,000 steps or 60 minutes of exercise don’t have to be done in one chunk. Ten minutes here, 20 there add up. Also, while team sports are great, they aren’t for everyone. So encourage your child to run, jump rope, do push-ups and sit-ups, hula hoop, and do jumping jacks.
  • Do it together. Matching pedometers can make things even more fun. Regular pedometers keep track of how many steps your child takes over the course of a day and can add an element of competition. But consider getting a Striiv instead. Besides tracking steps, the Striiv (striiv.com) gives challenges throughout the day, includes games that encourage activity, and makes donations to charity when you or your child achieve your goals. My 8-year old and I have been using them for a few weeks and they’ve made walks, runs, and bike rides much more fun.
  • Use commercials. If you’re watching TV (another thing you should be doing as a family instead of using the tube as a babysitter), do a different exercise for each commercial break.
  • Talk to the school. With the focus in recent years on grades and test scores, many schools dropped or cut back on physical education. Ironically, there’s a clear connection between exercise and academic achievement: kids who exercise more tend to get better grades.