Fitness. To some kids, that’s a dirty word. For my son, it’s worse than that most diabolical of all words: math. Unlike some math, though, fitness is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a long-and-healthy-life stew. I’ve used many tricks (with varying degrees of success) to get my kid to drop his unhealthy eating habits, but what can you do when your child absolutely hates running, jumping, or making any strenuous movement? Well, I have a few ideas.
Some kids exercise naturally. They have such boundless energy that they can barely find a minute to sit down and eat something before they are off again. They often pace like caged animals ready to be released in the backyard, and when set free, they spend hours running, climbing, and pestering someone to play tag with them.
The parents of such children are often exhausted and praying for a break from their kid’s vigorous activities. On the other hand, these parents never have to worry about their kid sitting on the sidelines while a bunch of inept 6 year olds play some semblance of baseball or coming last in every single race they participate in.
For the parents of energy-challenged children, such as myself, this is a living nightmare. It’s not because we need our kids to be good at sports, but because kids need to move their bodies. If they have no desire to engage in the simplest of physical activities, that speaks of a larger problem, a problem that could lead to obesity.
First off, if this sounds like your child, don’t beat yourself up—it’s not necessarily your fault. I’m an active guy. I love playing basketball and baseball and have been known to enjoy a hike or two on a weekly basis. I go to the gym, run, and lift weights. My wife works 80 hours a week and still makes time for physical activity.
So, as parents, we are setting a good example, which is very important. However, our kid just hates any physical exertion. We take him on bike rides, hikes, and walks, and he reluctantly tags along but does only the bare minimum in terms of energy expenditure. He’ll do it, but he finds no joy in anything that resembles physical education.
What to do? My son’s total dislike of moving has weighed on my mind more heavily than any other developmental issues we’ve had with him. Did we do something wrong? More importantly, what can we do from now on? How do we, collectively as parents, make exercise fun for kids and something they see as necessary for a healthy life?
I have a few ideas that have helped us get our energy-deficient kid off the couch and exercising without him even realizing it. You might call this dishonesty, but I call it saving his life.
Before I share my tips, let me stress this: it’s crucial never to use exercise or being sent outside as a punishment. Don’t ever threaten to add a mile to a hike if your kid doesn’t stop complaining. This will only fuel their resentment towards physical activity. Always emphasize the fun. In fact, making things fun is the best strategy for tricking kids into anything they don’t normally want to do.
Play to their strengths
Right off the bat, let’s talk about the unique qualities that make our kids who they are. Humans are all different, and the tiniest ones are no exception. My son happens to be a night owl and has been since he was a baby. We’ve tried to train him to go to bed at 8 pm, but it has never worked, no matter how early he’s gotten up in the morning.
For some reason, his energy level spikes after sunset. He drags his feet all day and can’t be bothered to get too excited about anything. Yet, when the sun goes down, he perks right up! It’s bizarre. If I try to get him to go for a walk with me at 10 am, he will complain until he’s blue in the face. At 10 pm, however, he’ll get up on his own and run circles around the house, pretending to be Iron Man.
So, instead of trying to change this, we leaned into it. Whenever we can, we tweak his exercise schedule to coincide with his naturally energetic times, and I pick activities that he loves.
Renaming our kid’s fitness exercises worked for us early on. When my son was 6 years old, he was already over the idea of going outside to kick or throw a ball around. He may have played tag for 5 minutes with his friends, but inevitably, they’d just all lie in the grass and talk about Dino Dan.
So, I had to get creative. Instead of making him do calisthenics, a word I myself hated as a kid, I came up with my so-called Superhero Training. It’s calisthenics alright, but it’s buried under the goal of becoming a Superhero. Just before bed, we’d do sit-ups, jumping jacks, push-ups, and the shuttle run. I would move from one thing to another as fast as possible to make it more frenetic and fun. This has worked great.
My son happens to love Iron Man and all of the Marvel films and TV shows, so I had this idea and ran with it. When my kid was really into dinosaurs, we did dinosaur yoga. If yours likes unicorns, you could do Elite Unicorn Protection Squad Training or some such. My point is, use their own interests to trick them.
Lightsaber battles and night walks
Lightsabers are big in our house and luckily for us, they work better at night. Since my son is eager to run around in the dark, I will often challenge him to a lightsaber fight in the front yard. We’ll go out and have an epic clash that lights up our little corner of the neighborhood for as long as it takes to declare a victor. A victor will emerge only when he has run around for a sufficient amount of time or I have pushed myself to breaking point, which is usually about 30 minutes. The most effective battles include force-pushes, flips, and imaginary stormtroopers that both of us Jedi eventually need to team up against.
On nights when I just can’t get amped up enough, I’ll often suggest a walk. The neighborhood looks different at night, so it makes it kind of fun. If your kid is into spooky things, you could bring flashlights and call it a Ghost Hunt.
Scavenger hunt hikes
Sometimes, exercise needs to happen during the day, and you need to convince your child that hikes can actually be fun. The best way to get them excited or, at the very least, mildly interested in anything exercise-related is by making a game out of it. Games make exercise fun.
On hikes, I like to do scavenger hunts. Come up with a list of items you might find on your hike and get your kid excited about winning. The more items on your list, the longer your hike could be. Your kid won’t even notice the miles they log if they’re focused on finding the perfect-sized pinecone to complete their list. Suckers!
One daytime thing my son loves is water. When he’s in any body of water, no matter how big or small, he could soak in it for hours. So, taking him to the beach is always a great option. If you don’t live near one, then lakes, pools, and even a strong sprinkler system are amazing alternatives, and all are fun activities for kids. If you can, make a day out of it. Pack a healthy lunch and some outdoor toys and stay for as long as you can. On a good beach day, my kid comes home exhausted and falls asleep much earlier than normal.
Water is great for people of all ages, but make sure your young one learns to swim well so they can be safe. Even before they become adept at it, letting them play on the edge of the water can net hours of outdoor physical fun.
Geocaching and other biking activities
Bikes! A family bike ride is always great. I also favor biking for local errands. Even pedaling to the grocery store for a few small items can be a fun biking episode for everyone. But it’s not just chores and errands—there are so many interesting things to do on a bike ride.
How about geocaching? This is a fun exercise for both kids and adults. It’s a treasure hunt in your neighborhood. I prefer to use this as a biking activity, but it can be just a walking one. When you run out of caches to find nearby, you can drive somewhere close to find others and spend an entire afternoon engaged in a hunt. They have geocaches almost everywhere.
So, get on your bikes and ride! Your kids will have so much fun, they’ll forget how long it’s been since they last watched YouTube! You got ‘em!
Trampolines and the like
Trampolines rule. There are also affordable bounce house options. My kid has always loved jumping, and when paying to go to Sky Zone every week became monetarily debilitating for us, we invested in our own backyard version. It has been amazing!
You can also look into swing sets, slides, or anything your kid might enjoy for an extended period of time. It’s worth the price, in my opinion, especially when there isn’t a playground nearby.
Bring a friend
Bringing a friend along is a great way to get kids motivated. Even if they hate the activity, having others to commiserate with will end up occupying their minds, leading to wild scenarios, stories, and maybe even a band.
I can speak from experience on that last one. By the end of one particular hike, my son and 2 of his friends had a name for their band, ideas for their live show and album’s artwork, and myself tapped as their manager. More importantly, they had lined up a gig at my son’s Halloween party, which was to take place a month later. This led to a month of rehearsing and an actual performance. I kid you not! You never know what can happen when a few friends fancy themselves miserable together but are actually having fun.
I’m a big fan of rewards although I realize that not everyone approves of dangling carrots. A reward can be anything—a toy, extra video game time, or just a dollar. If you are worried about obesity in your kid, then food is probably a no-no as a reward. I still use treats as an incentive sometimes, but usually as an accumulative long-term goal. For example, each mile hiked earns my son a point. When he collects 10 points, he can get an ice cream in the park or something like that.
I know, I know, dangling incentives isn’t the best way to get kids to do things, but hey, it works for us. I’d rather my kid had a bunch of extra toys he never plays with and some acceptance of physical activity than fight with him tooth and nail to get him to walk down the street.
If you let your kids sit around all day and make no effort to get them up and moving, they could end up dealing with medical issues for the rest of their lives. We all want the best for our kids, so we should strive to teach them healthy habits. There’s that old saying, “Well, at least you have your health.” So, let’s start our kids down the right path and give them the guidance they need for that long hike we call life. They may resent your efforts, but they’ll eventually feel great about following your lead.