How to Help Your Kids Have a Healthy Relationship with Exercise


By Sarah Hughes


A lifelong positive relationship with physical activity is something we’d all love to have, right? It’s a pretty tough ask in reality.


Barriers to regular exercise are plentiful, but research shows that forming that love for being active in our childhoods can really help us commit to prioritising our health throughout adulthood.


We’ve long known that childhood obesity is a huge problem in countries across the world, but increasingly evidence suggests that obesity and inactivity in childhood can have far reaching consequences for adult health too. People living with obesity are at greater risk of certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure, and joint problems. But could these future risks be minimised by regular physical activity in early life? And if so, how can we as parents help our kids foster a great relationship with sport and exercise?


In a recent study carried out on young rodents, early exercise on a wheel appeared to have an abundance of benefits as the rats aged. Firstly, exercise increased metabolic function, secondly, it reduced inflammation in the cells and thirdly, even the rats that were fed a high-fat diet, although they still got fat, experienced none of the negative side effects of their obesity


This could explain how some people can be obese yet not suffer the consequences of it in the way many others do, there’s a strong chance childhood exercise could have had a positive preventative effect on their adult health.

The study lead, Dr Justin O’Sullivan explained, “What was remarkable was that these changes lasted long after the rats stopped doing that extra exercise. The bone marrow carried a ‘memory’ of the effects of exercise. This is the first demonstration of a long-lasting effect of exercise past puberty.”

Aside from all the fantastic physical benefits our kids get from being active, there are huge mental and social benefits too. Children who are regularly engaged in sports have more energy, less school absence and report feeling more positive and optimistic. Who doesn’t want that for their kids!? Being engaged in sports teaches children about teamwork, collaboration and how effort leads to reward. It’s also a great way to increase their self-esteem and confidence, something which is particularly pertinent for teenagers. In their social-media-obsessed worlds, it’s easy and frighteningly common for body image issues to come to the surface. If we can keep our children engaged in physical activity throughout those tricky teenage years, the chances are they’ll be more active adults with a better, kinder view of their body.

That’s not to say it’s easy though… anybody who has tried to raise a teenager from their bed to go for a family walk will tell you that! It’s extra challenging when it comes to girls, studies show that for various reasons including periods, puberty, a lack of confidence and sport being seen as more of a male domain, activity levels for females drop off sharply around the age of 14. This has huge ramifications for their health into adulthood because as we all know, it’s much harder to start from scratch after falling off the exercise bandwagon.


So what are the practical steps we can take to help our kids develop that lifelong healthy habit of exercising regularly?


● First of all, be a role model for your kids. Show them how regular exercise impacts your life positively. Show them how you prioritise it and why. If you’re always booking into gym classes and then cancelling them in favour of a TV dinner on the sofa, your kids might not listen to you when you encourage them to get their trainers on!

● Make activity social. So instead of trips to the cinema, try a day at a trampoline park or assault course. It stands to reason that the more fun you can make physical activity the more they’ll want to engage.

● Look at where you can incorporate exercise as a mode of travel. Instead of always relying on the car or public transport, encourage your kids to use their scooter, bike or their legs!

● Find their ‘thing’. Children are not too dissimilar to adults here. We all have activities we loathe and get no joy out of (hands up if running makes you want to cry?). Doing those activities we don’t enjoy can really effect our motivation. The good news is there are so many different sports and activities on offer so you’re bound to hit on one or two that really spark something in your kid. Let them try a wide range and see where their interests lie and what they’re good at.

● Once they’ve got their favourite activity, it’s really key as parents that we support their interest in it. Of course that involves being a taxi driver, but it’s also important to be their cheerleader. Encourage, support and celebrate their achievements.

● It’s important in the formative years not to create too strong a correlation in your child’s mind between weight and exercise. Focus on how great exercise and sport make them feel, rather than placing any importance on how it affects their body shape or size.

● Finally, wherever you can , make exercise a family affair. It’s a great way to sneak in some quality time with them, whether it’s a kickabout in the park with a football or heading off to a Mummy-and-me yoga class. Your child will thrive on that interaction with you and begin to frame activity as something truly positive for them.