While there is plenty of blame to go around from toxic food, to technology, to parents, the biggest blame lies on the messages being delivered to our youth about exercise. The message kids frequently receive is that exercise is only for athletes, or performing well in a battery of standardized fitness tests. Or we just tell them they should exercise because it’s good for them.
Along with “do your homework” and “eat your vegetables,” “get your exercise” is high on the list of things we’re told we should do in our youth because it’s “good for us.” Unfortunately for many kids, that message is not being delivered effectively. According to a recent Iowa State study, which looked at more than 200,000 students, barely one in eight kids achieved a healthy score as it relates to aerobic capacity, BMI, and upper body strength.
We have an obligation to get our kids moving. To do so, we need to change our message and find better ways to convey why exercise is important. Here are a few of my suggestions for changing the narrative for our youth.
It’s Not About Fear
Kids who exercise have greater attention spans, faster cognitive processing speeds, and better performance on tests than kids who are less active. But moving your body isn’t just about being sharper and smarter; it’s about expressing grace, health, and beauty as well.
The problem for many kids (and adults) is that the message they hear is that exercise is the key to losing weight. Instead of framing movement and activity in a positive light and around a sense of purpose, the message kids hear is “get off your lazy butt and exercise.” Scientifically speaking, the message is wrong. While exercise may be an important component of keeping weight off, it isn’t the key component of weight loss. And perhaps more importantly, fear-based motivation doesn’t work. Instead, kids need to be supported and learn that no matter what their body type, or whether they are heavy or lean, there is a way that they can develop their physical skill set.
We need to teach children that fitness and exercise, like education, isn’t simply a means to an end. We need to acknowledge that the current paradigms in fitness aren’t working for our youth. Instead, we need to reframe the messages we deliver to kids around exercise. In the same way that passion and talent will be the keys to unlocking a successful and purposeful career, lasting success with movement and exercise comes down to the same elements – passion and purpose. Kids should be taught that their body, like their mind, is an opportunity to find their bliss and express their true nature. More than anything, kids need to be told to do what they love to do, not what we feel they should do.
Find the Way to Move That Moves You
Our educational system has plenty of faults, but perhaps the biggest glaring weakness is its ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. We brainwash our kids to think there is only one way they can get ahead in the world. Not every kid needs a degree to be successful, and not every kid needs to be an athlete to be fit. But every child does need to figure out how best to use their brain and their body to succeed. When it comes to lasting success with exercise, customization is critical.
All kids have the potential to be good at something. The problem in fitness is that we limit exercise to the simple categories of cardio, weights, and sports. Some kids are athletes, some are artists, and some are bookworms. There are physical activities for all of them. Athletes can play football and basketball. Artists can dance and do martial arts. Bookworms can use the power of their minds to move their body through adventure and strategy-based physical activities (think triathlons, adventure racing, or Brazilian jiu jitsu, etc.) Ultimately, kids need to be encouraged to customize their own best way of moving, rather than being told to exercise for the sake of exercise.
kids at recess
Our kids hate exercise, but love moving. The problem is what we’re teaching them about exercise. [Photo courtesy Pixabay]
It Isn’t About Exercise, It’s About Moving
For young people, exercise usually has something to do with either performing in fitness tests or participating in sports. The problem is, not all kids are athletes, and many don’t find traditional exercise or fitness tests enjoyable. Ask a kid to run a mile or do as many push ups as he or she can in a minute, and the only kids that do well are those that are naturally fast or strong.
But observe a bunch of kids playing on a trampoline and you’ll see one of life’s truisms at work – kids love to move. Kids need to be taught that there are many ways to move your body, and exercise is just one of those ways. Help them discover the movement that best suits them. Says education guru Sir Ken Robinson, “Whether or not you discover your talents and passions is partly a matter of opportunity. If you’ve never been sailing, or picked up an instrument, or tried to teach or to write fiction, how would you know if you had a talent for these things?”
Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach, or counselor, your job is the same – help kids find the right way to express their physicality through movement. It’s essential that we expose kids to every conceivable movement modality and give them the tools and encouragement to move their bodies frequently.
Go Ahead and Lift Something
I never lifted weights as a kid. In my formative years of the 1980’s, we were told that kids who lifted weights would stunt their growth. For some, that myth still holds weight. While there is nothing scientifically that corroborates that myth, some still find the thought of muscles and kids to be distasteful.
But regardless of opinion, science shows that kids who lift weights and/or perform resistance activities like jumping actually have better bone density than those who don’t. Furthermore, resistance training early may even help kids lower their risk of chronic pain the future. Kids should lift at all ages but before doing so, they should also be taught proper form and safety in preparation.