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Get kids to move more

Don’t turn it into another chore. Instead, look at it as a way to de-stress
Dancing together is fun,” she said, and lifts pulses and spirits

Gretchen Reynolds   |     |   Published 19.05.20, 04:07 PM

When we asked readers recently what they wanted to know about the coronavirus and exercise, many parents responded with variations of the question how do I get my kids to move more and stop sitting all day in front of laptops, phones and televisions?

“A growing body of evidence shows excessive sitting to be linked with various health risks, low self-esteem and decreased academic achievement in school-aged children and youth,” said Taija Juutinen Finni, a professor of health sciences at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland who studies inactivity in young people.

But how do we encourage young people to be more active, without making activity one more draining chore? Exercise scientists and coaches, some of them also parents, had some suggestions.

Chase bubbles and dance

Parents’ primary goal should be to find a way — any way — to encourage homebound offspring to get up and move, said Stuart Phillips, the director of the Centre for Nutrition, Exercise and Health Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. “Getting some kind of physical activity every day greatly improves their mood, sleep and, of course, their health,” Phillips said.

The current physical activity guidelines recommend that children and teenagers exercise for at least an hour a day, while preschoolers between the ages of three and five should be up and whizzing about for three hours or more. But, for now, young people “should just try to get out of breath once in a while,” Juutinen Finni said. To that end, the researchers recommend that, in technical parlance, you let the wild rumpus start.

“Hopping, skipping, ball toss, bear crawls and crab walks can be fun ways to engage younger kids,” said Samantha Stephens, a paediatric exercise physiologist and research fellow at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada.

Or “set up a disco” in the living room, Juutinen Finni suggested, stringing holiday lights and creating a cross-generation family playlist. “Dancing together is fun,” she said, and lifts pulses and spirits. You also could meld academics and aerobics, helping both seem less rote.

“In maths, students could do calculations, and then get to perform as many jumps as the last answer,” Juutinen Finni said. Or, if they are studying shapes and geometry, suggest they step off the dimensions of your rooms and calculate just how rhomboid they are.

Whenever possible get outside, wearing masks and gloves as required. “Use chalk to create a hopscotch course,” Stephens said. “Blow bubbles and have your kids catch them. Play tag.”

Not surprisingly, young people move more when outdoors. In a 2019 study of 6,500 children in 12 nations, any hour spent outside resulted in more physical activity than comparable time indoors.

Join the resistance

Young people should also aim to be strong, and some of them, especially teenagers, may be more receptive to weight training than family dancing. “If your kids don’t want to run, bike or walk but would lift a weight or a sack of flour, do a push-up, squat, jump, skip, then great!” Phillips said. “Resistive work is safe for kids,” he adds, “and likely helps to prevent injuries in sports, has beneficial metabolic effects and a huge mental health benefit.” It can also be done with little or no equipment.

For a brief, child-friendly workout, try push-ups, followed by “mountain climbers” — on all fours, kicking first one leg and then the other behind, as if scaling a steep slope — and 30 seconds or so of “Superman”, meaning children lie on their stomachs and lift their arms and legs as if whooshing through the air.

Recess for all

But perhaps the most important message for parents is “don’t try to be the PE teacher,” said Ali McManus, a professor of health and exercise at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus, Canada, whose research focusses on children. “If we make exercise too prescriptive, it will be yet another thing to make many parents feel they are failing” and children and teenagers resentful.

Instead, reframe physical activity as a respite from the anxieties of the pandemic, she said. “Parents need recess, too.” So, for your sake and theirs, get up when you can and hop or shimmy with your youngsters.

And know that having the time, space and opportunity to exercise are privileges not available to everyone. If, this afternoon, you cannot break away from Zoom conferences for a dance-off, relax, Juutinen Finni said, and aim for the more-modest goal of getting your offspring up off the couch every hour. Standing up “provides a healthy stimulus to the leg muscles in children,” she said, and lifts some of the weight from busy parents’ shoulders.

The New York Times News Service

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