Get the Family Moving!

For many parents that are juggling work, careers, kids, homework and the chores of everyday life and the importance of nurturing an active family who does more with free time than sitting in front of a screen can be a challenge.

With most families rushing out the door before 8 a.m. and returning at 6 p.m. with dinner and homework routines looming, there isn’t a lot of time left to get the gang outside for a little fresh air and exercise. And with more and more families overwhelmed by schedules, deadlines and commitments, it’s not surprising that physical activity is part of a long list of stuff that doesn’t get done.

The consequences of too little time to exercise is a society of kids who don’t move enough, which leads to a whole host of concerns including the tendency for inactive kids to grow up to be inactive adults. Added to an already low level of physical activity is the realization that it dips even lower with the onset of adolescence. It shouldn’t be surprising then that most children don’t benefit from the healthy by-products of exercise, and is especially troubling considering 80 per cent of parents incorrectly consider their inactive child as active.

In recent years, schools have been tasked with most of the responsibility to get kids moving. But there’s a growing realization that without the support of parents, kids are unlikely to make physical activity part of their daily lives.

Understanding the vital role that parents play in developing a love of exercise in their kids, researchers from the U.K. and Netherlands set out to discover the best way for parents to encourage more family physical activity. They reviewed 28 studies featuring family-based interventions designed to increase physical activity in children and came up with several suggestions on how families can overcome some of the obstacles they face when trying to build more activity into an already packed schedule.

They found one of the most effective strategies to boost physical activity in families is similar to that used by individuals. Goal setting may provide busy parents with the additional impetus needed to prioritize their child’s physical activity above other competing demands.

In the family context, goal setting means deciding how often to participate in structured and unstructured physical activities, using a calendar to schedule and chart progress and rewarding the family when goals are achieved.

Catherine Sabiston, associate professor in exercise psychology at the University of Toronto and a Canada research chair in physical activity and mental health, says it’s important that the kids be involved in the goal-setting process. In fact, research suggests that goals are more often met when the kids, not the parents, make the big decisions — like what type of physical activity is a priority and how often the family should be active individually and collectively.

Also important for success is that parents be good role models, which means showing, not just telling. Setting individual exercise goals and realizing them can motivate kids to do the same. Success is catching, so when one person in the family becomes more active, it often leads to others doing the same. While some goals can be collective, there’s plenty of room for individual goals as well.

Having the kids reinforce the parents’ activity as well as the parents reinforcing the kids’ activity builds interest and self-efficacy in the children. Research also suggests that it’s important to set goals that are relevant to the family and to downplay health and wellness outcomes. Exercise should be framed as fun and playful, not good for health.

“Enjoying time together, learning new skills and improving confidence, using physical activity as merely the vehicle for such change, may be more attractive to families who do not currently meet recommended physical activity guidelines,” the study’s authors say.

Exposing our children to activities that develop their physical literacy, like running, jumping, throwing and kicking and mastering sports that can be done throughout the lifecycle is also important. Right now that means ballet, football and swimming, but that may change as the children start to develop their own interests.

We must provide our children with lot of opportunities to be active, role modelling and letting them get involved in the scheduling of activities. 

This summer, go ahead and set a target, make a schedule and record all your family’s activity. And be sure to celebrate when you reach your individual and collective goals.