As hard as it may be to believe, I haven’t always had the spindly build of a runner. I actually only began running a few years ago in an attempt to try to shrink my waistline when I couldn’t stand any other type of exercise. I certainly wasn’t a runner or even all that active as a kid. But I want to prevent my twins from becoming couch potatoes and encourage healthy habits, though I don’t expect them to run a marathon. In order to learn from my past, I’ve found a way to actually get them to expend some energy.
When I look back at running in my childhood, the two main memories I have are of somehow managing to walk a mile in over 20 minutes during the presidential fitness test in high school, I believe as some form of protest, and getting so winded from a short warm up run in the woods before Taekwondo class that I couldn’t recover in time to start the actual class. Thinking about it now, I actually think part of why I love running in the trails and woods over the road is because of this early experience. However, as a kid, these memories stuck with me and pretty much kept me from running until relatively recently. I wanted to make sure my kids had positive experiences to think about and build up into healthy habits.
American children run huge risks when it comes to health. Childhood obesity is on the rise and at historic levels while many kids struggle to have access to good nutrition and stay active. Way too many kids just get plopped down in front of the TV at night and don’t get the recommended 30 minutes of active exercise a day they need. A huge part of this is a result of lack of access, but there’s something to be said for kids not getting exposed to fun ways of staying active as well. I wanted to give my kids every possible opportunity to learn that exercise can be fun.
Taking inspiration from my children’s daycare’s sports class as well as my new favorite athlete (and the boys’), PK Suban who is constantly inventing new workouts and hockey training moves, I created a form of obstacle course using just chalk and our driveway to get them to practice different fundamentals of running. One afternoon when they were drawing with chalk, they got bored and asked me to run with them. We normally just run around in circles, so I decided to add more of a game element to it, and drew a “track” we’d have to run around with the chalk. This soon turned into more of an obstacle course with winding turns, long speed stretches, and meandering turns to work on dexterity and balance. When they loved this, I kept adding more features like jumps, high knee steps (denoted by Xs on the ground for each foot), and a “power zone”, colored in with a rainbow of colors where you have to run at full speed through the end.
So far, the boys have loved this and it’s gotten them to run what has to be over a half mile, maybe even close to a full mile, several nights. We have races against each other, between the two of them, and make up games where we both start from opposite ends at the same time and see where we run into each other. Frequent rain has meant that I can create a new course almost every day which makes it more novel and fun to keep doing. Honestly I’ve been getting tired before they do most nights.
Of course this isn’t the only way to get three year olds to exercise either. Organized sports are a great way to get them excited as well. We’ve got them signed up for soccer, though it remains to be seen how much three year old soccer is just running around telling kids not to pick up the ball. The boys are also lucky to have a sports class at school where they play different games each week, sometimes an actual sport, sometimes more of a skill practice or obstacle course. Regardless, it keeps them moving. The key is to find opportunities to create fun ways to get active and move around.
Parents do also need to strike the right balance though. Kids can quickly get burned out from frequent and repetitive activities and this will have the opposite effect of keeping kids from being active or giving up on activities. Much like my experiences with running as a kid, you don’t want kids to learn to hate certain activities or exercise in general. There are also concerns over how much exercise is too much. Kids are still developing muscles and bone structure and too much exercise too early can adversely affect this. Tacking on too much exercise too early can also be counterproductive if it comes at the cost of health problems. Striking the right balance is critical in providing opportunities for getting active. In general, about 30 minutes of low-to-medium intensity activity is perfect for younger children.
Finding ways to get children interested and engaged with exercise can be a challenge for parents, but like feeding, sleep training, and every other habit parents help develop in their children, it’s a critical responsibility of parents to instill healthy active habits in their children. By mixing things up, staying creative, and most importantly, making it a family activity where parents act as role models for the behavior they want to see in their kids, kids will quickly learn how to stay active and more importantly, love doing it.