4 ways parents can help their children move more and live longer

Over 70% of Canadian parents say their children are sedentary after school, watching TV or movies, playing video games, or texting with friends. We now know that sedentary activities are associated with adverse health risks, like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

It’s important to pinpoint factors that affect children’s activity levels and try to find ways to promote healthy long-term habits. Parents and guardians are a key influence in increasing children’s physical activity and reducing their sitting time. Simply put: parents can serve as role models, supporters, and encouragers to their children’s physical activity.

WHY ARE PARENTS IMPORTANT IN CHILDREN’S PHYSICAL ACTIVITY?

It might seem obvious that parents play a huge role in developing children’s physical activity habits, but we rarely reflect on how or why this happens. Have you ever seen kids copy the older people in their lives? For better or for worse, children look up to adults as examples. When they see mom or dad watching TV or playing with their smart phones, they want to do the same. But, if they see mom or dad going for walks, or exercising, chances are they’ll want to join in too.

Providing support like driving to sport practices, recreational centres, organizing activities or providing positive prompts and words of encouragement help increase children’s physical activity. Giving children encouragement may be one of the most important parental factors because it improves children’s self-efficacy (or belief in themselves), which has long-term effects on their identity and development.

Finally, parents who place strict limitations on where children can explore tend to have inactive children with a lack of independence. Conversely, children who are given freedom to explore their neighbourhoods and communities are more independent and physically active.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Here are a few things that you can do as a parent, guardian, or related authority figure to try and get children moving.

  1. Give them some space: At times, it seems like danger is everywhere, and it can be difficult balancing your child’s protection with their independence. When children are outdoors, try to stay physically distant from them to let them explore and problem solve, but swoop in when safety may be an issue. You might be surprised at how few times you actually need to intervene.
  2. Take advantage of nature: Nature is good for you! Even in the busiest of cities, being able to find green areas is associated with numerous health benefits. Improvements in psychological well-being (like decreasing stress, depression, and anger), physical health (like reducing blood pressure, insulin resistance and improving heart health and mobility) and social skills (like being creative, exploring and meeting new people) are common perks of being surrounded by nature. So, encourage your kids to get outside!
  3. Be spontaneous and creative: In one study, children reported that they didn’t want to play with adults because adults were too boring and serious. Games or activities that are perceived by children to be boring, too safe, or repetitive lead to disinterest and inactivity (ParticipACTION Risky Play). Conversely, helping to develop a positive relationship with physical activity is critical for them to keep it up. Modifying games by changing rules, locations or objectives will allow children to be more creative.
  4. Join in: As parents, it may be difficult to balance personal demands, family responsibilities and children’s needs. Playing games or being active with children is a great opportunity to spend time together doing activities that you both enjoy and appreciate. And who knows, they might just have a little more fun because you’re being active with them!

This article was contributed by Nathan Chiarlitti, who is currently completing a M.Sc. in Kinesiology and Physical Education from McGill University. His research interests include physical activity in clinical populations and exercise physiology in sport contexts. If you have any questions, you can email him at nathan.chiarlitti@mail.mcgill.ca.