Getting Non-sporty Kids Active

Some kids naturally excel in gym class and on the playing field — and some don’t. But your child doesn’t need to be an athlete to develop a love of physical activity, and that’s an important message to emphasize if you want to build lifelong healthy habits.

“Don’t confuse activity with athlete,” recommends Ellen Houston, an exercise physiologist with the UW Health Pediatric Fitness Clinic. “Sports aren’t for everyone, and that’s OK.”

Here’s how to inspire even the most sedentary of kids to get moving:

Counter any negative messages

If classmates are teasing your child’s performance in gym or the playground, tell your child to ignore negative comments.  Encourage and support your child’s choice to be active — any moving is good.

Limit screen time

“Screen time is the biggest competitor to conversation and to movement,” Houston says. “Unfortunately, due to the widespread usage of screens some kids using tablets/smart phone before they can talk. The more you sit, the more difficult moving becomes. This lack of movement early on slows motor development, making climbing, skipping, running and balancing difficult. All of these movements are needed for playing on a school playground and in gym class. So a lack of moving early on shows up in school when trying to keep pace with other kids.” Try establishing some screen-free time play time every day. This gives your family a chance to bond together in other ways, whether it’s raking leaves, walking to a park, walking a pet or taking a neighborhood bike ride.

Find an after-school activity — even if it’s not physical

Some kids spend after school time inside on screens waiting for their parents to get come from work. A better choice may be participating in an after-school activity, music, art, sports or homework club. Staying active at school is better socially and physically then using screens at home for hours at a time. 

Remove the barriers

For some children, exercise is uncomfortable. They don’t like to be in the sun, don’t like being hot or sweating, may be bothered by bugs, and may feel the sensations of increased breathing and muscle fatigue alarming. Many of these sensations signal sensory processing issues and all of them can be worked around. If outdoor activity isn’t comfortable, look for an indoor opportunity.

Give your child decision-making power

Emphasize how important staying active is for health— both physically and emotionally. Let them know that being active is important in your family. Giving your child a choice of activities may help reduce resistance. If your child tries a sport or an activity that’s not a good fit, stay positive and say, “I’m so glad you tried that. Let’s find something you like better.”

Encourage free play

Kids who visit The Pediatric Fitness Clinic are often amazed when she gestures at a room of toys and equipment and says, “What would you like to do?” “Most kids are wired to want to play, and few kids get the opportunity to make up a game,” she says. “So feed that fire of creativity.”

Find what motivates your child

“Some kids like to compete and some join teams because they like the social interaction with teammates,” Houston explains. For most kids, the important part is hanging out with friends and moving, not competition. If your child is social but not competitive, encourage him or her to sign up for an activity with a buddy or two.

Get active together

Not only does it give your child (and you) an accountability partner, but it can also be terrific for bonding. “Physical activity usually works better if it’s with someone, especially a parent for little kids,” Houston says. “By moving together, you often have a little deeper, longer conversation.”

Get a Fitbit instead of a cell phone

If your kids are interested in technology, let them do some research on a “wearable”. Fitbit, Garmin, Samsung and Apple all make fitness trackers for daily steps. Keeping track of steps can be motivating.  While adults aim for 10,000 steps a day, kids should get 10,000-13,000. You might try to make it a friendly family goal to share daily steps and celebrate progress.  

Explain the benefits

Emphasize the potential gains in strength, speed and energy. Kids who are motivated by gaming may need to earn screen time with activity, perhaps a 2:1 ratio. The recommended guidelines, 7 days per week, 60+ minutes (or 10,000 – 13,000 steps per day) may give them perspective on their own activity. Most kids will follow the guidelines, with a little encouragement. Even the most resistant kid may be willing to earn a reward with exercise.

Teach reflection

“With the kids we see in the Pediatric Fitness Clinic we try to circle back and ask how they feel at the end of the visit compared to the beginning of the visit. Whether they sat on a bouncy ball, walked on the treadmill or did some core exercises, asking them to acknowledge the difference 15-20 minutes of moving made in how the feel is powerful.

Remember that something is better than nothing

“Try to move often, throughout the day” Houston says. “It doesn’t have to be 60 minutes all at once at a prescribed heart rate.” The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that young children move 10-15 minutes every waking hour. Aim for some movement at least three time per day, morning, afternoon and after dinner. “Ideally, you’re moving at least 10 minutes at a time,” she says. And it doesn’t have to be sprints around the playground — simple walking to school or walking as you run errands counts.

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