Parents are the single largest factor in determining whether their kids develop health activity habits
By Katie Ingram
The key to helping children live more active lifestyles may lie with encouragement, leadership and support, but it all needs to start at home.
“Every child is born with the innate drive to move; that’s why they learn to walk and climb,” says Logan Harris, an exercise specialist and kinesiologist with the Canada Games Centre in Clayton Park. “If a child become sedentary or inactive, it’s because they lose that natural drive.”
According to data from Statistics Canada, in 2012/2013 most of the country’s school aged children were not meeting the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, which say that both children and youth aged five to 11, and 12 to 17 should be getting an hour of “moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.” Specifically, only 13 per cent of boys and six per cent of girls between the ages of five to 17 were meeting this activity threshold.
However, these numbers can improve through adult influence. Harris says one of the first steps parents can take is showing kids that they shouldn’t be sitting down all the time, by not doing it themselves.
“They (children) imitate their parents or guardians’ behaviour,” he says. “Active parents have active children; inactive parents have inactive children.”
For Harris, being active can be as simple as going for a walk or hike and merely “appreciating the outdoors.” Specific examples listed by the Physical Activity Guidelines include “puddle hopping” on rainy days; sledding during snow days and walking, biking, rollerblading or skateboarding to school.
Harris also finds parents can introduce children to activities they enjoy to promote the fun side of exercise. If the child ends up liking the activity, they will continue with it as they age.
“Nothing is off the table; you can even introduce them to light weight training… and they can incorporate it as they go along,’ he says.
Another way to encourage kids to be more physically active is to limit their screen time with tablets, computers and cell phones says Sue Comeau, a Halifax-based certified exercise physiologist and author of the F.I.T. Files, a children’s book series with a healthy lifestyles theme.
Comeau explains that parents need to talk to their kids about screen time and why it needs to be limited as there are many additional benefits associated with physical activity. Along with being happier and more physically healthy, the Government of Canada notes that doing the allotted amount of exercise per day can also help kids with socialization, stress levels, building self-esteem and improving concentration and their grades.
If parents have these kinds of conversations and explain their reasons, Comeau says, kids don’t feel like they’re being punished when asked to put their devices away.
“You can say to them: ‘I get you want to be on your screen, but let’s not have it be for X many hours a day’ and explain why,” Comeau says. “Kids will get outside and they’ll be happy once they do; they will find something to do.”
For five-to 17-year-olds, the Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines recommends a maximum of two hours of recreational screen time per day. However, according to Doctors Nova Scotia, Canadian children are spending about six to seven hours a day in front of a screen, such as TV, tablet or computer, outside of using these devices for homework.
Harris agrees screen time needs to lessen, going back to his point about parental influence. For kids to understand that staring at a screen over a long period of time isn’t healthy, parents also should be willing to put their phone down and go outside as well.
“If the parents stay inside when they tell the kids to go outside, you’re sending mixed messages,” Harris says, admitting it sometimes hard to separate from technology in today’s world.
“(Now,) it’s more economical than it was to have more access to tech wherever you are, but it’s hard to be active and on that medium at the same time, so they need to choose one or another.”
When it comes to more structured activities such as hockey, basketball, football and dance, parents need to avoid putting too much pressure on children. Harris says parents need to enjoy or participate in the activity as much as their children do. That way, the kid doesn’t feel they’re being forced into it and, as kids, might have little to no say.
“Kids will get the wrong impression; they’ll see it more as a chore and not something they enjoy with their parents,” Harris says. “They lose the social aspect and connection with other people during the activity.”
Comeau maintains there shouldn’t be too much of a focus on how well a child is or isn’t doing when exercising or partaking in a sport. If the focus is on the success, this could cause a child to become frustrated or overwhelmed and they might quit.
“You also have to let kids own it,” Comeau says. “I ran competitive track for years… and I lost my first race by a lot; I got crushed and it was okay; as long you like it enough, you’re going to keep doing it.
“Let it be the kids’ choice; parents shouldn’t worry if the kids don’t make the team and shouldn’t be saying for them to try harder. The first question should always be ‘Did you have fun?’”
On the other side of structured activity, Harris says parents need to also avoid making a child focus on one or two particular sports. Parents need to be open to their children trying different things at different times in their lives.
“If they specialize too early, they will be less likely to stay with that activity and adopt new activities,” he says.
Even if a kid is enjoying a sport or activity, Comeau says there is one other thing parents need to be acutely aware of: overscheduling. If a child has too many activities on the go, she says they could fall back into old habits because they don’t have enough leisure time.
‘We’re a very busy society,” Comeau says. “Kids, they’re not really doing stuff when they’re not scheduled; they’re home on their screen or whatever; they aren’t outside.”
Thus, there needs to be a balance between structured activities, unstructured activities like walking or biking, and leisure time.
“There should be a balance of structure and fun and an emphasis should be on play and enjoyment and an appropriate amount (of activity) and variety,” Harris says.
There are a variety of resources in the Halifax Regional Municipality you can use to encourage your child to be more active. These range from tips and suggestions from experts to programs and facilities. Some examples include:
YMCA • ymcahfx.ca
Recreation Nova Scotia • recreationns.ns.ca
Canada Games Centre • canadagamescentre.ca
The F.I.T Files (blog written by Sue Comeau as her book’s protagonist Finn) • fitfiles.net
HRM Recreation • halifax.ca/recreation
Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre • Kids N Culture mymnfc.com/programs_education_cap.php
Nova Scotia Health Promoting Schools • nshps.ca/
HRM: KidSport • kidsportcanada.ca/nova-scotia/halifax-regional-municipality/
• Happy Kids Indoor Playground in Bedford (happykidshalifax.ca)
• Hop, Skip, Jump in Halifax (hopskipjump.ca)
• The Kids Fun Factory in Dartmouth (thekidsfunfactory.ca)
• The Playbox in Dartmouth (funattheplaybox.ca)
Resources mentioned in the article include: