When runner Shannon Brady returns home from a race, there’s still more distance to cover: Her daughters, ages 1 and 2, borrow her sweaty sunglasses and “run a race” of their own around the house. “My husband and I are avid runners, and we make sure [our daughters] see us lace up and have fun doing it,” says Brady.
Like Brady, many parents aspire to pass down the joy of fitness to their children. A 2022 survey conducted by the fitness brand Life Time found that 89 percent of parents enjoyed spending time participating in outdoor recreation and sports with their kids, while 80 percent said they’d like to inspire their young ones to do more physical activity to build their children’s fitness. So, how do we nurture a love of movement in the next generation?
It’s a critical question because there’s evidence to suggest that our current approach to raising active kids may not be working. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children aged 6 to 17 exercise at least one hour per day, but only about 24 percent of kids meet this criteria. Children’s fitness regimens have been slowly declining in the years since the pandemic, even though the physical advantages of activity are undeniable. Working out from a young age may stave off heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis, among other health issues. And, when it comes to the mental side of things, regular exercise has been found to reduce anxiety, boost mood, and improve self-esteem and cognitive function, and also help kids cope with stress.
However, when it comes to instilling a love of running, biking, swimming, and other activities into our young ones, clinical health psychologist Sarah-Nicole Bostan, PhD, says it’s more about teaching them to love the feeling than to love what the workout can “do” for them. “Teaching children to appreciate their bodies and all the opportunities a strong, agile body affords—irrelevant of weight or shape—lays the groundwork for a lifelong positive relationship with movement, even in a world where the emphasis is often misplaced on physical outcomes or appearance,” she says.
Shaping your children’s fitness mindset
Here are four ways parents can instill a positive relationship with movement in their kids.
1. Lead by example
Research shows that children imitate their parents to practice new skills and operate in society. So, a child who sees their parents moving may well be inspired to join in. “According to social learning theory, children largely acquire new behaviors through observation and imitation,” explains Dr. Bostan. “That means caregivers aren’t doing their kids any favors by skipping their own self-care or daily movement routines. In fact, children will learn if they are invited to be active participants [in sport] and allowed to see what’s happening in a healthy relationship with exercise.”
How you talk about your daily dose of movement also plays into modeling fitness for your child. If you hope to raise a human being who loves to sweat, talking about why you love it can go far. Just be sure to lead with the feeling-forward values of exercise (rather than metrics). For example, “I love how free I feel when I’m swimming in the pool.”
Molly Prospect, a runner living in Hartford, Connecticut, brings her 18-month-old son to watch races, including his dad’s marathons. “We try to keep him an active participant in the marathon process, whether it is supporting my husband on training runs, going to the expo, or ringing cowbells on race day,” she says.
But you don’t need to run 26.2 miles to show your child the power of sport. Apart from tagging along for her races, Brady also makes sure her daughters have plenty of movement role models around them to demonstrate what children’s fitness can look like at all ages. “We take them to the local high school girls’ volleyball and basketball games whenever we can,” says Brady. “At this point, they only last about 30 minutes, but I think it’s important and fun for them to see other girls be active and work as a team together.”
2. Keep movement playful and flexible
While there are certainly valuable lessons in taking sport seriously—like the importance of resiliency, dedication, and showing up for your teammates—emphasizing movement as play ultimately creates a lifelong love of getting sweaty. And the latter outcome is what will ultimately support a healthy relationship with movement. “Sometimes children who are naturally athletic are encouraged to pursue hobbies that lend themselves to more movement, while children who may not appear to be athletic—or show difficulty with balance, coordination, and speed—are dissuaded from pursuing organized sports,” says Dr. Bostan. “In reality, both groups will benefit from daily movement.”
Pediatrician Sarah Lester, a mother of four kids between the ages of 16 and 22, believes that sports practices should feel like a series of games (especially before they reach high school age). “Ultimately those games result in a lot of movement,” she points out. “If you tell a young kid to go out and run a mile, it will be the rare kid that will keep coming back for more.” On the other hand, games like capture the flag, jumping ropes, and ants on a log all encourage running and agility without the pressure of a formal sport.
Got a budding dancer at home? Try doing this fun, follow-along hip-hop routine with your kids:
This joy-first mentality also applies to the type of exercise children choose. While it may be tempting to encourage your little one to emulate whatever movement speaks to you, it’s important to let them dabble—and drop things that don’t interest them. “You never know what kids will like, and often the social part of the movement is the part that they really want,” says Lester. “It may be a one-and-done season. It may be the beginning of a new passion.”
3. Avoid creating a “movement versus screens” mentality
“As a parent, the challenge today is to find balance between physical activity and the draw of technology,” says Hy Rosario, director of outdoor and kids’ footwear at Hoka, who helped design the brand’s kids sneaker. “One great thing about the pandemic was that it truly forced families to get outside, whether it was a simple family walk to give the puppy their workout or going on a hike to work out some sweat. In many ways, families were directed to find ways to keep their mental, emotional, and physical health in check.”
As children’s lives become increasingly intertwined with screens, it’s important to prioritize family outings in the outdoors while keeping a neutral dialogue about technology. “Meeting kids where they’re at is critical for creating healthy habits that stick, as well as praising efforts early and often, whatever the outcome,” says Dr. Bostan. For example, she says that if your child loves video games, you may want to pitch a “live-action outdoor video game” and invite their friends. Children’s fitness video games can also be a great way to integrate screens and movement.
What you don’t want to do is create an antagonistic relationship with technology that positions tech as the “bad” thing and exercise as the “good” thing. In time, this approach could lead to your child compartmentalizing screen time as an “award” and fitness as a “punishment.” Instead, encourage your child to participate in a wide array of appropriate activities both online and IRL.
4. Don’t force it
Full stop: You can’t make someone enjoy something. All you can do is introduce your child to an activity and see how they respond. Even though Prospect’s son is less than 2 years old, she’s already considered what she will do if he doesn’t have the same passion for sport that she does. “I think I would respect his decision but remind him that movement usually makes us all feel good,” she says. “I would encourage him to come for a walk with me, or throw a ball for the dog. Any way to encourage movement without explicitly saying, ‘You need to move.’”