Mom asks, How much do I have to push my child to exercise?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 2, 2012 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

I have a bright, happy, 8-year-old daughter. She loves school, has some good friends, and is mature and good-natured nearly all the time. Here's the problem: she dislikes any and all physical activity. The only thing she doesn't like about school is PE, she resists attending birthday parties that are sports-oriented, and has one-by-one given up all physical extra-curricular activities (ballet, gymnastics, soccer, karate). She is nowhere near overweight, but she does like to eat, so I worry for her size down the road if she continues to resist physical activity.

The question is, how much do we push her to be involved in a sport/physical activity outside of school? I don't want her to resent it/us, which is my fear if we make her do something she doesn't want to do. How important is it at this age??

From: LouHen, MetroWest, MA


Dear LouHen,
As you clearly are aware, physical activity is important for many reasons, from heading off obesity and resulting medical issues to making kids smarter. So, yes, exercise is a good thing.

But: it doesn't need to be adult-led, organized, or even competitive. In fact, the best exercise is simply free play, such as old-fashioned playground play, or kid-organized games ("Tag! You're it!"). Do she and her friends ever ride bikes? Jump rope? Play hop-scotch? Jump on a trampoline? Play at the beach? Run in the water? If she's got a fair share of this kind of activity, I wouldn't worry. (She and her friends never heard of hop-scotch? Get some chalk and show them how it's done.)

And what about family activities: A weekend hike, a family bike ride, badminton, touch football, a walk around the neighborhood. Doing something together as a family can remove the onus of "exercise" and turn it into "this is what our family does." And if you don't do these things now as a family, it's never too late to turn over a new leaf. Just don't make her be the reason it's happening.

You've introduced her to a few different possibilities of extra-curricular sports, and now I'd let it go. Maybe she'll want to try something down the road because her best friend does, and maybe there's just something about the structure, the rough and tumble or the competition that she doesn't like. Heck, maybe she doesn't like the way the gym smells. It sounds like she's a healthy, typically-developing kid who has friends and that, by definition, means they are doing something physical some of the time. (If their play literally revolves around screen activities when they are together, it's time for some rules. Read this.)

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9 comments so far...
  1. You can get her a dog , if she has wanted one. She's at an age where she can care for it, and she will be walking twice a day, at least. If she's interested, you can sign her up for classes with the puppy ... dog sports can be a pretty good workout for humans as well. And a dog's unconditional acceptance can be especially comforting as adolescence rears its judgmental head.

    Posted by Susan November 2, 12 09:52 AM
  1. Susan, what a great idea! Wish I'd thought of it!

    Posted by Barbara Meltz November 2, 12 12:22 PM
  1. I'd consider other types of dance or cheerleading. Neither of my kids liked ballet, but liked other forms of dance (ballet is too rigid). Look for a studio that might have classes that don't end in recitals--sometimes kids don't like that either. I'd also keep offering up each activity of the season just to see if something intrigues her.

    Barbara's suggestions are good, but most kids these days do not ride bikes or play outside in the neighorhood and get almost no physical activity outside school or organized sports. I think you do need to keep encouraging physical activity. It is really important.

    Posted by ash November 2, 12 12:34 PM
  1. Don't make it about weight (at least not primarily) but about health. You think it's OK now because she's thin and it will be a problem later if she puts on weight...then the exercise will come off as a punishment for weight. Plus a couch potato thin person isn't necessarily all that healthy either. Do something NOW so it's a health habit.

    And on another point, why does everyone feel the need to point out how otherwise wonderful their kid is first, before asking their question?

    Posted by di November 2, 12 02:06 PM
  1. I'm not sure if this is something that would work in your family, but a lot of games for the Nintendo Wii encourage movement and activity. It might be a more subtle way to get her into some physical activity. It's a very family-friendly console, so other family members or friends could join in as well.

    Posted by MB November 3, 12 08:56 AM
  1. Have you put it to her in this way: "It is our family rule that you get one hour of exercise 5x per week. How are you going to get it?" List the options. Make it mandatory that she choose SOMEthing - and as Barbara said, not necessarily a structured sport or activity. (This can be tough in the winter months, though. Indoor sports are a blessing during New England winters.)

    My nine year old son is on the swim team (2 practices per week) and does karate (3x per week) in addition to our daily dog walking. Occasionally he does an 8 week fencing clinic. We skate on Sunday afternoons at the rink.

    My five year old daughter does karate (only once per week at her age and rank), tap & jazz once per week, and a kids' yoga/zumba atomic combo once per week in addition to our daily dog walking. This winter she will also take skating lessons.

    Our family enjoys downhill skiing and hiking - in our neck of the woods, Blue Hills is a great choice.

    Be sure you follow through and do it yourself! Set the example!

    Posted by RH November 4, 12 02:00 PM
  1. It sound like this girl dislikes the mindset that comes with organized sports.

    Maybe she and her mother can go and swim laps twice a week. Then she and her father can go for long walks twice a week. And finally some folk dancing is a lot more fun that ballet.

    Posted by Irene November 5, 12 09:46 AM
  1. I have to comment on Susan and Barbara's idea about a dog being a solution. An 8 year old could certainly take some responsibility for a dog but it is a living creature with feelings and its care MUST be overseen by an adult that truly WANTS the dog. That 8 year old will be in college when the dog comes to the natural end of his days. The adult must be willing to do everything for the dog, including footing the expensive vet bills, making sure the dog is not left alone for long periods of time, and making sure the dog is exercised (walks alone aren't enough for some breeds). Dogs acquired "for the kids" almost always end up in shelters because rarely does a child have it in them to take on the monstrous obligation of exercising and training a dog to be an acceptable member of the family and of society. Dogs that aren't exercised can become destructive and dogs that aren't trained end up barking too much and jumping on people, becoming one more sad face at the shelter, wondering why they were abandoned. It is a monumental decision to get a dog and must be thought through carefully, taking into account the next 12-14 years.

    Posted by Cordelia November 7, 12 10:34 AM
  1. Sounds like she is not interested in team or competitive-type activities. I'd recommend other dance classes: jazz, swing, ballroom, tap, hip hop. Maybe find a place that offers a variety so she can try a different one each week or month. Ask her if there is anything she is interested in. Go on walks with her or take her swimming. Try yoga or zumba. Anything that's more about enjoying the activity on your own over competing or being in a team.

    Also, unless they've changed a lot since I was in school, PE classes are usually awful. So not liking PE is probably more about not liking PE, and can even be the cause of resisting activities so far.

    Posted by mm November 7, 12 05:03 PM
 
9 comments so far...
  1. You can get her a dog , if she has wanted one. She's at an age where she can care for it, and she will be walking twice a day, at least. If she's interested, you can sign her up for classes with the puppy ... dog sports can be a pretty good workout for humans as well. And a dog's unconditional acceptance can be especially comforting as adolescence rears its judgmental head.

    Posted by Susan November 2, 12 09:52 AM
  1. Susan, what a great idea! Wish I'd thought of it!

    Posted by Barbara Meltz November 2, 12 12:22 PM
  1. I'd consider other types of dance or cheerleading. Neither of my kids liked ballet, but liked other forms of dance (ballet is too rigid). Look for a studio that might have classes that don't end in recitals--sometimes kids don't like that either. I'd also keep offering up each activity of the season just to see if something intrigues her.

    Barbara's suggestions are good, but most kids these days do not ride bikes or play outside in the neighorhood and get almost no physical activity outside school or organized sports. I think you do need to keep encouraging physical activity. It is really important.

    Posted by ash November 2, 12 12:34 PM
  1. Don't make it about weight (at least not primarily) but about health. You think it's OK now because she's thin and it will be a problem later if she puts on weight...then the exercise will come off as a punishment for weight. Plus a couch potato thin person isn't necessarily all that healthy either. Do something NOW so it's a health habit.

    And on another point, why does everyone feel the need to point out how otherwise wonderful their kid is first, before asking their question?

    Posted by di November 2, 12 02:06 PM
  1. I'm not sure if this is something that would work in your family, but a lot of games for the Nintendo Wii encourage movement and activity. It might be a more subtle way to get her into some physical activity. It's a very family-friendly console, so other family members or friends could join in as well.

    Posted by MB November 3, 12 08:56 AM
  1. Have you put it to her in this way: "It is our family rule that you get one hour of exercise 5x per week. How are you going to get it?" List the options. Make it mandatory that she choose SOMEthing - and as Barbara said, not necessarily a structured sport or activity. (This can be tough in the winter months, though. Indoor sports are a blessing during New England winters.)

    My nine year old son is on the swim team (2 practices per week) and does karate (3x per week) in addition to our daily dog walking. Occasionally he does an 8 week fencing clinic. We skate on Sunday afternoons at the rink.

    My five year old daughter does karate (only once per week at her age and rank), tap & jazz once per week, and a kids' yoga/zumba atomic combo once per week in addition to our daily dog walking. This winter she will also take skating lessons.

    Our family enjoys downhill skiing and hiking - in our neck of the woods, Blue Hills is a great choice.

    Be sure you follow through and do it yourself! Set the example!

    Posted by RH November 4, 12 02:00 PM
  1. It sound like this girl dislikes the mindset that comes with organized sports.

    Maybe she and her mother can go and swim laps twice a week. Then she and her father can go for long walks twice a week. And finally some folk dancing is a lot more fun that ballet.

    Posted by Irene November 5, 12 09:46 AM
  1. I have to comment on Susan and Barbara's idea about a dog being a solution. An 8 year old could certainly take some responsibility for a dog but it is a living creature with feelings and its care MUST be overseen by an adult that truly WANTS the dog. That 8 year old will be in college when the dog comes to the natural end of his days. The adult must be willing to do everything for the dog, including footing the expensive vet bills, making sure the dog is not left alone for long periods of time, and making sure the dog is exercised (walks alone aren't enough for some breeds). Dogs acquired "for the kids" almost always end up in shelters because rarely does a child have it in them to take on the monstrous obligation of exercising and training a dog to be an acceptable member of the family and of society. Dogs that aren't exercised can become destructive and dogs that aren't trained end up barking too much and jumping on people, becoming one more sad face at the shelter, wondering why they were abandoned. It is a monumental decision to get a dog and must be thought through carefully, taking into account the next 12-14 years.

    Posted by Cordelia November 7, 12 10:34 AM
  1. Sounds like she is not interested in team or competitive-type activities. I'd recommend other dance classes: jazz, swing, ballroom, tap, hip hop. Maybe find a place that offers a variety so she can try a different one each week or month. Ask her if there is anything she is interested in. Go on walks with her or take her swimming. Try yoga or zumba. Anything that's more about enjoying the activity on your own over competing or being in a team.

    Also, unless they've changed a lot since I was in school, PE classes are usually awful. So not liking PE is probably more about not liking PE, and can even be the cause of resisting activities so far.

    Posted by mm November 7, 12 05:03 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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