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Over 18.5% of children (ages 2-19) in America are obese and that number continues to rise. The foods and amount of food that kids are consuming combined with a decrease in physical activity plays a role in this. Physical activity for kids is not only important in maintaining a healthy body weight but also benefits their overall physical health, mental health, and improves their cognition. And, physically active children often reduce their risk of future chronic diseases (1).
So, how do we as fitness professionals engage kids and encourage participation in something that is so beneficial for their health, growth, and development? Kids are not often motivated to exercise for the same reasons adults are motivated to exercise. Kids aren't necessarily looking to exercise to lose weight, feel better, or fit into a dress from a few years ago.
We will touch on how much physical activity kids actually need and explore some of the best ways to motivate children to exercise.
Kids of ages 3-5 should focus on being physically active and getting movement throughout the day. Children of ages 6-17 should participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day (2). Sadly, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 25% of 6- to 17-year-old kids reach this amount each day (3).
Kids have different interests and skill levels at every age. And, as mentioned, kids don't often view exercise the same way adults do. So, it is important to take those concepts into consideration when building activities for kids or when trying to find ways to motivate children to be more active. The following list includes six ways you can help motivate kids to work out.
There are a variety of psychosocial variables that can contribute to a kid's desire to participate in physical activity. One variable that tends to stand out is the enjoyment of exercise or sport. So, it is important that kids are having fun (4)! Whether you create an obstacle course or a game, have a race or competition, or challenge them to a dance-off, making it positive, fun, and interesting for the age group should be a priority.
If an activity is well below or well above a child's skillset, they are likely to get either bored or frustrated. So, it is important to select activities that are age-appropriate. Although this can vary quite a bit, the following are a few examples of appropriate activities for each age group.
Ages 3-5: bike ride, hop, jump, swim, dance, and run in both a free play format as well as structured activities
Aged 6-17: participate in a variety of exercises that support the different components of fitness (building muscle, aerobic activity, etc.); run, climb trees, and participate in athletics (2) and may even be able to start age-appropriate strength training around age 7 (5)
Although most kids should ideally participate in a variety of unstructured and structured activities with varying intensities, physical activity is still physical activity. When parents are with their kids, encourage them to park further away from buildings, take the stairs instead of the escalator, and walk or bike instead of driving when they can. All the little bouts of activity add up.
Many children are inclined to do what adults do and not necessarily always follow what they say. So, it is important to always set a good example. As a personal trainer, you are likely already making attempts at keeping yourself healthy and active, so, try to schedule some time to have kids see your workout and encourage parents to do the same. Whether they come watch you run a race or see you working out before practice begins, the visual experience will show them that you practice what you preach and encourage them to do the same.
Most kids do well with routines and structure. It gives them insight into what to expect and what is expected from them. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, having a meal routine, a daily exercise routine, and a proper bedtime that allows adequate sleep are all important in shaping a child's behavior (6) and creating healthy habits that will extend into adulthood. As a trainer, you can implement this into your workout routines with kids as well. You can develop a routine with warm-ups, cool downs, and even the organization of your programming for youth.
One of the contributors to the lack of regular physical activity in kids is their electronic usage. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children between the ages of 8-12 spend anywhere from 4 to 6 hours a day using their electronics. Teenagers may spend as much as 9 hours a day (7). If there are boundaries on electronics usage, it encourages children to find other things to do and allows additional time in the day for them to exercise.
Do you love working with kids? Are you passionate about making changes in the health and lives of youth in America? Turn your passion into a career with ISSA's Youth Fitness Certification!
Hales, Craig M., et. all. "Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015-2016". NCHS Data Brief. No. 288. October 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db288.pdf
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition". Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Physical Activity Facts." Cdc.gov. 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/facts.htm
Crimi, K., et. all. "Psychosocial correlates of physical activity in children and adolescents in a rural community setting". *International Journal of Exercise Science. 2(4): 230-242, 2009*
Dahab, Katherine Stabenow, and Teri Metcalf McCambridge. "Strength training in children and adolescents: raising the bar for young athletes?." Sports health.vol. 1,3: 223-6, 2009
American Academy of Pediatrics. "Infant - Tips for Parents." Aap.Org, 2020, www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/HALF-Implementation-Guide/Age-Specific-Content/Pages/Infant-Tips-for-Parents.aspx.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Screen Time and Children." Aacap.org. 2020., https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx
Dr. Hugh D. Allen stated in USA Today that 30 million of today's youth in the US will die of heart disease as adults. Additional health problems have all been linked to childhood obesity and lack of fitness in today's youth. As a result, youth fitness training is one of the fastest-growing segments in the health club and fitness industry. In addition, youth sports are a booming industry, starting as early as 5 years old in hopes of a college scholarship. Parents are willing to invest significant time and resources to help their kids get an advantage.