When it comes to a child’s relationship with physical activity, it’s clear that parents play a major role.
“Parents are typically the earliest influence in the child’s development of attitudes and values, including those related to food, body image and exercise,” said Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.
“Research on this topic has found that children of parents who are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risk for modeling their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors, like compulsive exercise,” she added. “On the flip-side, research indicates that children of parents who have a healthy relationship with food, exercise and body image are more likely to have positive self-esteem, improved school and social functioning, and a reduced risk for eating disorders.”
It’s natural to want to encourage your child to be active to promote their physical and mental health, but parents should be mindful of the way they go about this. Sometimes, focusing too much on exercise can foster negative associations in kids.
To help promote positive relationships with fitness, HuffPost spoke to Mysko and other experts to identify everyday ways parents can instill a healthy attitude about exercise in their kids.
Separate exercise from physical appearance.
One major way to foster a healthy attitude toward exercise is to separate it from how a person looks.
“In our thin-obsessed culture, it’s too easy for children to come to believe that the purpose of exercise is to obtain a thin body or to lose weight or to achieve a certain physical appearance,” said Rebecca Puhl, a professor in the department of human development and family sciences and deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “These messages are damaging to youth, so parents need to be mindful of those broader societal messages that children see and hear, and to instead focus on engaging in physical activity for the purpose of health and well-being.”
As with other issues, parents can offer counter-messaging to combat the harmful notions about fitness and body image that kids may absorb from advertising, pop culture or even their peers. Caregivers should avoid words, behaviors and actions that tie exercise to the pursuit of weight loss.
“Parents can encourage physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle rather than a means to achieving a certain weight or body size,” Mysko said. “By shifting the focus away from appearance, we can frame exercise in the context of joyful movement: walking the dog, play dates at the park, impromptu dance parties, and more.”
Talk about physical activity in a positive way.
Parents should examine their own attitudes toward exercise and try to work through any harmful tendencies. They should also be mindful of their communication about physical activity in front of their children.
“Small comments can have a lasting impact on a child as they develop beliefs about their body image and satisfaction or dissatisfaction,” said Lindsey Giller, a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “If a parent says, ‘Ugh, in order to eat that dessert, I’m going to need to spend hours at the gym’ or ‘I hate exercising, it’s such a drag,’ kids pick up on that and internalize it.”
If parents make it clear that they see exercise as a chore or negative experience, that view may rub off on their children. Instead, they can make an effort to talk about movement in a positive way and highlight how it makes them feel good physically and mentally.
“Parents could also speak about their enjoyment of a challenging physical activity,” said Nailah Coleman, a sports medicine pediatrician and American College of Sports Medicine fellow. “When finishing a nice run, game of catch or swim in the pool, a parent could say, ‘Wow! That was fun! Even though running that mile was hard/even though it is difficult to throw very far right now/even though swimming that last lap made me tired, I am proud that I finished it and did my best. How do you feel about our activity?’”
Model an active lifestyle.
“Our children are much more likely to follow our behavior than to follow our instructions,” Coleman noted, adding that parents can serve as models for active living. “If we do it regularly and with enjoyment, they will consider it part of a healthy life and be more likely to do it, too, especially if we include them in our activities.”
Parents should try to encourage and integrate movement in everyday life. Those who are able-bodied may consider participating in adult sports leagues, biking to work, going for regular runs and taking dance classes.
“Hold family yoga classes, especially with young children, as it’s an excellent way to do healthy exercise which also promotes more general emotional wellbeing,” suggested psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “Active play with younger kids in the local park is great fun. If you have the courage to learn to climb trees in your local park, children love this form of activity, which is also great exercise. Family days out rambling is also a great, fun activity which provides super bonding time, exercise and all the well-being benefits of being in nature.”
Find out what type of movement your kids enjoy.
“Another way parents can help foster a healthy attitude toward exercise is by asking their children what type of movement makes them feel good inside and out,” Mysko said.
If kids don’t have an answer, you can suggest some ideas and see which they might be willing to try. It doesn’t have to be a formal sports team, but could simply be riding their bike, dancing to their favorite music or at-home yoga. Don’t show displeasure if they aren’t interested in your favorite form of exercise, and instead be supportive of their participation in whichever activities they enjoy.
“Together, you might consider creating an activity list for the upcoming week or month,” Giller suggested. “Kids are more likely to buy into things if they feel an element of control in choosing the way to participate.”
You can give kids control by involving them in decision-making about group activities, like choosing the route for your family walk. Once you’ve determined which forms of physical activity they enjoy, show your support by signing them up for programs, providing transportation, buying equipment and even engaging in the exercise with them. Identify times of day that are best for these activities and make them a regular part of the family routine.
“Make movement fun for the whole family ― whether it’s going for a walk or bicycle ride as a family, building an obstacle course and timing how long it takes for the kids to complete it, or blasting music to have a dance party to start the day,” Giller said. “Parents can plan activities or trips that promote new ways to exercise, such as hiking, kayaking, rock climbing. Allowing kids to invite friends along also helps to make exercise more social and fun.”
Don’t make it about competitive sports.
“Avoid becoming too focused on competitive sports as the only or major form of exercise,” McDermott advised. “There is an important role for those activities, but it can become problematic. The focus should be on health and wellbeing, not success or achievement.”
He noted that interest in competitive sports often evolves naturally from general enjoyment of physical activity, so it’s best to let it happen that way, rather than push competition on kids. Seeing exercise strictly as a way to win is not a particularly healthy attitude.
“It’s better to value exercise in a way that emphasizes health and wellbeing, not simply excellence,” McDermott explained. “Exercise needs to be seen in the context of whole person development and not simply be an end in itself.”
Parents should focus on skill-based accomplishments, rather than wins or numbers like calories burned and pounds lost.
“Look for ways to praise the child’s effort in developing the new skill, whether that is doing jump rope, riding a bicycle, or learning to play a sport,” Giller suggested. “When a child notices improvement in a new activity, they are more likely to stick with it.”
Never use exercise in the context of shame or punishment.
“Avoid body-shaming as a way to motivate kids to get moving,” Giller advised. “Statements such as ‘look at how much weight you’ve gained from sitting around on your computer these past three months’ or ‘when was the last time you moved?’ are likely to induce feelings of shame and insecurity about one’s body and may backfire in terms of a child’s willingness to engage in any physical activity.”
When kids are engaging in physical activity, don’t show judgment or suggest they’re doing something wrong (unless they are at risk for harm). This makes the activity less enjoyable.
“Parents should not force children to engage in vigorous physical activity or specific activity programs against their will,” noted Russell R. Pate, a former ACSM fellow and director of the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group at the University of South Carolina. “Parents should not criticize their children (particularly in front of siblings and peers) if they are not successful with a particular physical activity. Rather, parents should help children find forms of activity they enjoy and feel successful with, and then reinforce participation in those activities.”
Using exercise as a form of punishment is also a big no-no. Rather than relieving stress, it makes movement inherently more stressful and negative. Physical activity should not be something kids dread; it should be something they feel self-motivated to pursue.
Pay attention to your child’s behavior.
Even if you follow all the expert advice, it’s still important to pay attention to your child’s relationship with exercise. Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, executive director of FEAST (Families Empowered And Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders), said that some children learn harmful attitudes, but others may simply have a more innate inclination.
“If you see a young person starting to have strong thoughts and behaviors that center on eating or exercise, have your antenna up,” she cautioned. “There may be a mental illness coming into play, and that needs to be treated differently.”
One thing to look out for is if your child is engaging in a physical activity not because they want to, but because they feel like they have to, and if they’re giving themselves breaks to rest when they’re tired. Excessive or compulsive exercise is often a symptom of eating disorders.
“If you suspect that your young person is experiencing mental illness that involves eating, body image, or exercise, then it’s a really good idea to check in with a mental health professional who is trained in eating disorders,” Lyster-Mensh explained. “Eating disorder professionals are very good at figuring out the difference between an impulse that is true to the person and one that is being driven by mental illness. Early intervention with eating disorders is really important. It can save a life.”
This story is part of Don’t Sweat It, a HuffPost Life series on improving your relationship with fitness. We’re giving you a guide on the latest thinking on exercise and why we’ve been conditioned to hate it in the past. Mental health and body-positive fitness experts will offer guidance and show you how to find a routine that works for you. Find all of our coverage here.