4 Mixed Messages We Send Kids About Exercise

February 2016 By: Kathleen Smith, MS, CHES Exercise Specialist, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta
boys playing soccer in park
Preschool & Older

Motivating anyone to get moving (including ourselves!) can be tricky, but inspiring kids to toss the remote and get outside for physical activity can be especially challenging.

Most parents want to help their kids increase their activity level, but sometimes they sabotage their efforts by sending mixed messages about physical activity. Here are a few of the most common mixed messages I hear from parents, and a new message that will help you inspire your kids to get moving!

1. “I want to sign John up for soccer so he will be more active, but he hated it last year!”
Sports are a great way for your child to be active, but there are lots of options for being active without joining a team. In fact, kids are more likely to stick with an activity they enjoy, so if John doesn’t love soccer, it’s OK for him to hang up those cleats for something he truly loves!

New message:
“John, let’s talk about some fun things you love to do to be active, then put them on the calendar!”

2. “Every single day I have to make Claire turn off the TV, go outside and exercise!”
I love it when I see parents limiting screen time and sticking to it! In this case, the solution to getting Claire outside isn’t turning off the television—it’s ditching the word exercise!

Sometimes kids (and adults, too!) think of exercise as being an unpleasant chore. Try trading out the word “exercise” for terms that make physical activity fun!

New message:
“Claire, your friends are waiting outside to play! Have fun!”

3. “When Billy’s misbehaving, I don’t let him go outside and play,” or “When Beth’s disrespectful I have her run three laps around the house as her punishment!”
Whether it’s one extreme or the other, using physical activity as a punishment for kids either creates a negative association with being active or keeps them from being active altogether—which isn’t a good message either.

I’m a parent, so I understand how hard it can be to find effective ways to discipline kids! But using physical activity as a punishment almost guarantees your kids will start to resent physical activity—and you’ll have a hard time motivating them to get moving.

New message:
When your kids are misbehaving, find a consequence for their behavior they don’t associate with physical activity. For example, give your child a time out or have them do a few extra chores around the house. Another tip: Reward your kids with physical activity for good behavior. For example: “You were so patient at the doctor! Let’s go play at the park!”

4. “My kids are so busy with homework during the week they never have time to play outside!”
Staying on top of schoolwork is important, but keeping our bodies healthy is key to success in school! Part of staying healthy is being active, playing outside and just being a kid. Plus, being active can help recharge kids’ brains and make them more focused and efficient after a long day at school. Encourage kids to take a “brain break” and play outside before they hit the books. It’s especially important to get playtime outside before it gets too dark when the clocks “fall back.” Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, every bit of activity helps!

New message:
Find a balance and remember—taking a break from school and homework to play outside can actually make your kids better students!

Sending kids the message that physical activity is something they can enjoy increases the likelihood it will become a lifelong habit, so trade the mixed messages for ones that make moving a priority—and make it fun!

boys playing soccer in park