Raising Fit Kids: How to Encourage an Active Lifestyle in the Digital Age
As a stroke survivor and spokesperson for the American Stroke Association, I know firsthand the impact of living a healthy lifestyle. I’m also an advocate for wellness and disease prevention, and am working in the community, writing and speaking to raise awareness about preventing heart disease and stroke.
But as a mom, I also have a responsibility to try to teach my kids healthy habits as young children to encourage them to grow into healthy, active and productive adults. With the alarming increase of childhood obesity and the resulting increased risk of developing health issues and disease, it’s more important than ever to teach our kids that their day-to-day choices can have long-term effects. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2014, it was found that childhood obesity affects 13.7 million children and adolescents in the United States. Childhood obesity increases the risk of developing asthma, bone and joint issues, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and sleep apnea.
While statics can be terrifying, it’s also important to understand that 80 percent of heart disease and stroke is preventable through embracing a healthy way of living. After personally experiencing a stroke and meeting many survivors of heart disease and disability from stroke, I know that doing everything one can to prevent going through the devastating effects of stroke and heart disease will always be worth it.
With kids spending more time on computers, playing online games, texting, using FaceTime and social media, and watching YouTube on their iPads, and less time in outdoor play, the risks are higher than ever of children not getting enough exercise. Inspiring kids to move more and incorporate healthy habits early in life is key to supporting them in growing up into well adults with healthy habits.
Kids are never too young and it is never too late to introduce movement, physical activities, and healthier routines into their daily lives. Here are three things I do to teach my own kids more about incorporating movement and healthy choices into their daily lives.
1. Lead by Example
Kids absorb everything we do as parents—what we say about food and exercise, our attitude towards living an active lifestyle. I think leading by example is the best way to inspire them to be healthy.
When it comes to food, I try to be careful about talking about foods in front of my kids and labeling foods as “bad” and “good.” I have struggled with having a healthy relationship with food for much of my adult life, and I want to teach my kids to look at eating as way to fuel and energize their bodies and support their health.
I try to talk with them about how wonderful it is to eat foods that are so delicious (e.g. like their favorite Honeycrisp apples) and at the same time are also so healthy. I have found that the more I dig deeper to learn about foods, the more interesting I can make talking about foods with them. I try to add in where the food is from, when is the best time of year to eat it, what vitamins it has, and have them help me come up with ideas of what would be the best way to eat that food. This really seems to have a much greater impact on them than just saying “eat it—it’s good for you.”
I also think it is important that kids see you eat in a balanced way. Prior to my stroke, I was guilty of following fad diets that restricted certain foods and limited calories. I realize now that even though I wasn’t discussing it with my kids, they were watching and absorbing my habits. I’ll never forget one day after “failing” on yet another restrictive diet, I ordered a piece of carrot cake at dinner one night. My daughter said to me “Mom, is that good? You never eat foods like that… you know foods that make you happy.”
I realized then just how much our children are taking in and realized even though I was not discussing what I was eating with her, my out-of-balance eating was sending her the wrong message.
Leading by example is also important with fitness. As busy parents, I know it can be hard to fit in taking care of kids, working and making time for a workout. However, I do think if you want to teach your kids that moving your body daily is important, you have to do it too. This doesn’t have to be lengthy and intense hours in a gym, but I think your kids seeing you place importance on getting exercise (even if it’s daily walks to a grocery store or playing music and dancing around the kitchen, riding bikes around the neighborhood, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, jumping rope), this teaches them that this is an important that physical movement is a part of daily life.
What also makes an impact on children is having them seeing you enjoying moving. If you don’t have an exercise that you love, experiment with all different types until you find something you enjoy and makes you feel energized and not depleted. My husband and I both work out an average of four times a week. We do very different style workouts, but we both have a passion for them. I really hope our enjoyment for being active trickles down to our kids.
2. Make Moving Fun
When my children were toddlers, most of the activities we did together centered around play. I would try to figure out what they loved to do and incorporate that into activities. For example, my kids love music. So, they would “help” me with putting together the choreography and music for the barre classes that I taught. They would dance around as I would make my playlists. I also have a barre at home and they would try to do what I was doing at the barre.
Now that they are older (10 and seven), we’re able to do more out-of-the house physical activities such as hiking, swimming and fishing. My 10-year-old daughter is in ballet now, and we do a lot of stretching at home together—she still loves helping me create the moves for my barre classes. Finding sports and activities that they like and that they find interesting, really helps my kids get excited about being active.
3. Empower Your Kids
Empower kids to know they have control over their own health and quality of life by the choices they make every day. Talk to them about some of the other benefits of physical activity (besides health) that can just make them feel better and improve their day-to-day life, such as having improved focus in class, support achieving their best academic performance, getting a good night’s sleep and helping to manage feelings of stress and frustration.
I talk to my kids about how exercises boosts hormones called endorphins or “the happy vibes in their body.” I remind them that if they’re feeling bad, exercise/dance/sports can be a way to help them feel better. I’m hoping that delving a little deeper with them into the why of exercising being so good for you will encourage them to use it a healthy tool in life when they need to manage challenges and stress.
Another fun way I found to empower my kids to feel control over their health is by giving them a kids’ movement tracker. Initially, it was just fun for them to see how many steps they took in each day. We then moved on to setting goals that they would try to reach each day. My kids love this and I often see them jumping around at the end of the day so they can hit their targets.
Overall, teaching kids the importance of being active and healthy can be as simple as starting the conversation. They look to you for guidance, listen to what you say and mimic what you do. So, start the conversation you want them to internalize early, and they’ll be in a much better place to take those habits into their teen, adolescent and adult lives.