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How do I get my kids to exercise more?

Only one in three children are physically active every day. Here are some ways to coax your kids away from the couch.
Image: stock kids playing
Signing your child up for a sport is a way to get them moving that feels like fun, not work.FatCamera / Getty Images

In a world full of ever-changing technology and packed schedules for both parents and kids, good old-fashioned playing outdoors seems to take a backseat to the latest video game. Not so coincidentally, child obesity continues to be a serious problem, while participation in child sports is dwindling.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 18.5 percent of kids age 2-19 are obese. This is due in large part to dietary choices. For the average child, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that no more than 10 percent of calories come from added sugar. Yet, research has shown that boys ages 9-13 are consuming an average of 17 percent of calories from added sugar, and girls an average of 16 percent. These sugars come in everything from sweetened beverages, to candy, to fast food. All that added sugar surely takes a toll on children's health and waistlines.

So where does exercise come in? According to the President's Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, only one in three children is physically active every day and children now spend more than seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen (e.g., TV, video games, computer). Common sense tells us that if our kids are moving less and eating more processed junk food, these choices will quickly add up on the scale.

Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults — so helping your child make positive changes to maintain a healthy weight is important. But parents know that motivating your kids to want to be physically active can be tough.

So how do you coax your children away from the couch without it being a major battle? Here are some creative ways to motivate your kids to exercise without them feeling like you’re putting them on a weight-loss plan or forcing them to exercise.

1. Create a checklist calendar with rewards

Rewards are a fantastic motivator for anyone, especially for children. Download a printable calendar of the month and hang it up on the refrigerator or in an area of the house your child will see. Every time they choose to play outside, play sports, or move instead of watch TV or play video games, he/she gets a star for that day. At the end of each week, let them trade in their stars for a reward: like a small toy or a trip to the movies or park.

This can still work with older children, it’s just a matter of choosing rewards that will motivate them, like getting to stay up later or earning an extra few dollars in allowance money.

2. Sign them up for a team sport

Even though there are many benefits to getting children involved with team sports, Project Play, an organization dedicated to helping develop healthier and stronger communities, found that only 37 percent of children ages 6-12 participate in team sporting events, a number that has decreased from previous years.

Signing your child up for a sport is a fantastic way to get them excited about exercise. To kids (and many adults!) playing sports doesn’t even feel like exercise, it feels like fun. Start by asking your child’s school if they have an intramural sports program your child can get involved in. If not, most municipalities have recreational sports leagues for many different activities that your child can participate in after school and on weekends. Not only will being a member of a team easily increase their physical activity, but it will also teach them important social skills and give them the opportunity to build new relationships with others their age.

Talk with the parents in your kids’ classes to see if your children can join the same group or team, and if carpooling is an option to help make it easier on the parents.

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3. Don’t forget that fun movement is still exercise

Exercise shouldn’t be a chore or something to check off the to-do list without enjoying the actual activity itself. For kids especially, there are so many physical activities that fall under the “fun” bucket.

Activities like jumping on a trampoline, dancing, riding a bike, skiing, walking the dog and playing in the park are all excellent forms of cardio that feel like fun, not work.

As a bonus, you can join them and use it not only as family bonding time, but as a way to get moving and burn some calories yourself.

4. Channel their competitive spirit with family challenges

One of my private weight loss clients starts the summer off with a race around the track. She times each of her children, her husband, and herself to see how long it takes for them to each run one lap around the track. Then, at the end of the summer, the person who improves their time the most gets a new workout outfit.

Tapping into the competitive spirit motivates many adults, and children are no different, especially if there is a prize to sweeten the deal. Consider what other fun competitions you can organize for your family. Create an obstacle course in your backyard and see which family member can complete it the fastest. Organize a family game of basketball or two-hand-touch football at the park. Or choose active games like corn-hole or Twister on family game night.

5. Be a positive role model

Children look up to adults and mimic the behaviors they see — whether that’s positive or negative. That’s why it’s essential for children to see positive behaviors and habits from their parents and guardians. Studies have shown that when a child has active parents, they are almost six times more likely to be active themselves.

Whether you’re able to incorporate your child into your fitness routine or just have them around you while you workout, it’s essential to make sure that they’re able to see that health and wellness is a priority in your life. This may mean squeezing in a 15-minute workout in the morning, going on a walk after dinner, or doing a 5-minute yoga sequence (together!) before bed. Observing you make these choices will have a lasting impact on them as they grow up and develop their own daily routines and habits.

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