Does your pre-teen seem more interested these days in playing video games and watching movies than engaging in physical activity? If so, now is the time to visit or re-visit the subject of exercise. Tweens (children nine to 12) are at a pivotal age for forming and maintaining exercise habits that will benefit them throughout their adolescence and for the rest of their lives.
Pediatrician Debra Yeh, M.D., FAAP encourages parents to step up. “Monitor your child’s sedentary time and set exercise goals. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 15% of adolescents in America are considered overweight.” Dr. Yeh uses the Body Mass Index Scale (BMI) to track a patient’s weight. “If the BMI is 85% or higher, the person is considered overweight. A pre-teen may not mind being overweight, but as they get older there are more sociological and psychological issues attached to it. Physical issues may develop as well such as diabetes and sleep apnea.” Dr. Yeh adds, “If (a child) is overweight they must become and stay active because it is an integral part of weight management.”
Here are five practical ways to encourage your pre-teen to exercise regularly:
- Talk About It. Without criticizing or falling into lecture mode, dialogue with your pre-teen about exercise. Ask her what activities she would be interested in trying. Be honest about your own thoughts and struggles regarding exercise. If you’re talking about this subject casually and openly, it is less likely to become something that escalates into a power struggle between you and your child down the road.
- Get Creative. Don’t worry if playing soccer or taking a dance class isn’t your child’s cup of tea, even if it once was. Help your pre-teen find an activity that suits them today. There are countless activities out there that not only provide a good workout, but are fun, too. Depending on where you live, introduce your pre-teen to surfing, cross-country skiing, boxing, bowling, fencing, skateboarding, or, perhaps, indoor rock climbing. Marsha Kunz, M.S., director of The Give Me Five Program which educates parents and children on the key principles of healthy living through balanced nutrition and physical fitness, says when it comes to exercise it is also fine to keep it simple. “It doesn’t have to be difficult or organized—just move!” And remember, for kids, especially, keep fun in mind. “Buy a stand to convert their bicycle into a stationary one. This way they can ride indoors while they watch their favorite television show.” Kunz suggests. Give Junior time and opportunity and he will find physical activities he enjoys. And when he does, he’ll be more likely to stick with them.
- Be A Friend. Like most things in life, exercise is more fun when you do it with a buddy. Encourage your pre-teen to invite a friend to take a class together. Better yet, Kunz encourages the parents to be that friend! “Find a way to do things together. What could encourage a child more? Too many times in our busy lives it is rare that a tweenager has her parents’ undivided attention.” Working out together is a great way to connect with your pre-teen and model a healthy lifestyle. While engaging in exercise with your child, Kunz recommends that parents let their children decide what to do. “Jump rope, shoot hoops, play catch…let them choose. The bottom line is to have fun—together.” Dr. Yeh recommends 45 minutes of vigorous exercise, four days a week. “Kids are not getting enough exercise in school alone. Parents need to help supplement.” Dr. Yeh adds, “Remember, there is a strong genetic component to weight gain. For instance, if a child has one parent who is obese, that child has a 50% chance of also being obese.” Exercising together, whether or not obesity is a factor, is beneficial on a variety of levels.
- Tune In. It may seem counterproductive to ask your potential couch potato to watch a T.V. show with you, but not all shows are created equal. There are several on the air these days, especially for the older pre-teen (“The Biggest Loser,” and “Dr. Oz”, for example), that not only entertain, but educate and motivate, as well. Tune in together from time to time and talk about what you’ve learned. (Do sit-ups during commercials!)
- Dig for Diamonds. Acknowledge your pre-teen’s efforts to stay in shape—even if they’re minor. Take note of the steps he takes toward more physical activity, then point them out and offer praise. Simple (and sincere) comments like, “I enjoyed watching you at karate today. You’re doing really well.” Or, “I like how you chose to shoot hoops with friends today” can go a long way to encourage him to continue making the effort to stay healthy.
Make it a priority to help your pre-teen embrace the importance of exercise. The stakes are higher for tweenagers as this age group is at the cusp of entering into a period of their lives which can be especially stressful (academically, relationally and physically). Exercise is proven to be a natural stress reliever, energy booster and, of course, an effective way to maintain a healthy weight and promote a healthy self-esteem. Why wait to get started? Lace up your own sneakers and encourage your pre-teen today!