Get Your Kids to Love Exercise

A study of kids and exercise finds that parental behaviors and beliefs strongly affect their childrens’ activity levels.

January 3, 2011

Parents may not realize how much influence they have over their kids' exercise habits.

There’s been alarming talk for years about the rising rate of childhood obesity in this country, which is why it’s so odd that there’s been relatively little focus on how to get kids to exercise. And, it turns out, that may all have to do with you.


Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recently delved into the intersections between parents, children, and exercise. “We looked at all sorts of things that might affect activity levels of parents and kids, including cultural, environmental, psychosocial, and demographic factors,” says Sarah L. Lee, PhD, lead researcher on the project. “We tried to pinpoint how all of these affected ‘co-physical activity,’ which is the term for parents being active with their children. We found some surprising things.”

THE DETAILS: Lee and her team analyzed data on kids and exercise from a national survey of 5,177 parent-child pairings. The children ranged from 9 to 13 years old. The survey asked both parents and children a wide variety of questions, including how they felt about health and physical activity, how much time they spent hanging out together, if they tended to eat meals as a family, if the child played organized sports, if the child generally felt supported by the parent, and, of course, how often the parent and child exercised together.

The good-news finding was that 78 percent of the parent-child pairings reported being active together at least once a week. The not-so-good news: 22 percent of the pairings reported no shared physical activity whatsoever.

WHAT IT MEANS: Lee and her colleagues found that parents and their kids are more likely to exercise together if…

• Parents believe in the power of good health, and understand that physical activity is important and beneficial.

• Parents and children frequently eat meals together. “This wasn’t a huge surprise of course,” says Lee, “but it once again reinforces how important family mealtimes are.”

• The child is on a sports team. “We didn’t take this to necessarily mean that you should have your kid play sports,” says Lee. “We just think there’s likely a carryover benefit from physical activity, period. No matter how the child is getting active, it’s all good.”

• Parents tend to set limits on TV watching, AND have confidence in their ability to influence their children’s behavior. “This was interesting because co-physical activity increased only when both these factors were present,” says Lee. “The two had to go together.”

• Parents feel their neighborhood is safe. Naturally, kids who can't play safely outside are likely to get less exercise. But Lee cautions that kids in safe neighborhoods can be affected by this kind of thinking, too. “What was interesting here was that many parents believed that their neighborhood was dangerous when in fact it probably wasn’t,” says Lee. “I’m sure the pervasive violence in the media has something to do this more-dangerous-than-the-reality perception. But nevertheless, it decreased the likelihood of co-physical activity.”

What can you as a parent do to instill some healthy habits in your kids? Lee offers this advice:

• Be informed about physical activity. Know how much is enough: The current recommendation for kids aged 6 to 17 is 60 minutes of activity every day.

• Understand that every little bit counts. “That 60 minutes might seem like a lot,” says Lee, “but it can be accumulated throughout the day. So look for opportunities wherever you are, whether it’s at home, at the mall, anywhere.”

• Try to hang out more. Make a point of having more family meals together. Think of activities to do, even if just for a few minutes. “No need to make a big deal about it,” says Lee. “Consider scheduling a day or two each week, or an evening, where you get some together time.”

• Establish habits early on. “One thing we found was that co-physical activity time went down as child age went up” says Lee. “The 9-year-olds were significantly more likely to spend more time being active with their parents than the 13-year-olds." At the younger age, kids are more likely to want to hang out with you, she says. So take advantage of that and get them in the habit of exercising for fun.

• Seek out supervised activity in your neighborhood. If you’re worried about safety, consider school or club sports teams for your child. Or see what sports or activities are on offer at the local Y or community center, where there’s adult supervision.