We sign our babies up for gymnastics classes before they can roll over, swimming classes before they can walk. We worry about their weight, fret about their flabby. Yet despite, all of the good intentions, and early interventions, western children today are less physically fit than any previous generation of children.
In generations past, fitness came naturally to children; the activities that kept them on the move – stickball, tag, hide and seek, touch football, jump rope, hopscotch – were favourite pastimes. Older children helped out at home, in the garden, on the farm, in the family shop.
Today, activities that keep children inactive – playing video and computer games and watching television (including video-tapes, DVDs and cable) – predominate. And many children see physical activity as a formal scheduled event (dance classes or gymnastics, phys-Ed in school), rather than a natural, spontaneous part of everyday life. When a class isn’t on the schedule, exercise doesn’t occur to them as an option; given free time to fill, they’re more likely to grow roots in front of the television than build muscles out on the front lawn.
As the parent of a toddler, however, you have the opportunity to prevent that inactivity cycle from taking hold by helping your child to enjoy exercise now. You can also gently increase the odds that exercise will remain a life-long companion. Here’s how:
- Unplug the TV. Don’t let cartoons and video games glue your child to the sofa during his or her formative years. Using television as a baby-sitter, as a time-filler, or as a mood-stabilizer not only sabotages any chance to engage in mind-expanding activities like reading and imaginary play, but opportunities for muscle-expanding activities as well. Experts point to TV abuse as one of the major reasons for the decline in fitness among children-not only because TV watching discourages activity, but because it encourages the consumption of high salt, high-cholesterol, high-calorie snack foods.
- Fit fitness in. Be sure that from an early age your child spends some time each day outdoors-at a playground, in your garden, in a nearby park or meadow, anywhere where running, climbing and jumping are safe and hard to resist. Provide balls in several sizes, a tricycle or other riding toy, a butterfly net and, when feasible, a climbing frame.
- Get up and go with your toddler. If activity doesn’t come naturally to your toddler, encourage it by getting physical together. Supplement sedentary parent-child pastimes (reading, doing puzzles, drawing) with active ones (hide-and-go-seek, follow-the-leader, playing catch, piggy-in-the-middle).
- Set a fit example. Think about the path you’re leaving for your child to follow: does it lead all too often to the television, the easy chair, or the car? Or does it lead to the running track, the gym and the bicycle? Your child’s future fitness depends a lot more on how you pass your free time than on how many exercise, gymnastics, and dance classes you sign him or her up for. One study showed that children whose mother exercise are twice as likely to be active as children whose parents are sedentary; those whose fathers are active are almost four times as likely to be active. When both parents exercise, their children are six times more likely to be active.
Walk to the supermarket, the library, or a friend’s house rather than pilling into the car; if it’s more than a few streets away take the buggy, but encourage your toddler to walk part of the way. Cheer rather than complain when you have to climb stairs when visiting, or walk a long distance from packing space to shop. Take your toddler along on your morning walks (in the buggy most of the way). Have him or her join you while you do your video workout. Make some family outings active ones (sledding in the park), rather than sedentary ones (gorging on sweets at the local cinema).
- Check classes out before you check your toddler in. There’s nothing wrong with signing up your toddler for a weekly exercise, gymnastics, or movement class (but be careful not to over-scheduled) – as long as the teacher’s main goal is making fitness fun. Observe a class before you enrol your toddler. Look for instructor who motivate but don’t push, equipment that is age appropriate and safe, and formats that favour free play over regimentation.
- Teach respect for the body. When children learn to respect their bodies, they tend to take care of them. Show that respect by the way you feed the family, by the way you avoid cigarettes, drugs and the abuse of alcohol, and by seeing that the family exercise together. But also talk about how it’s important to take care of our bodies-if we don’t our bodies won’t take good care of us.