All kids need exercise. At least an hour of physical activity a day is recommended for healthy development of children’s bodies and minds (the same goes for adults!). But some kids just aren’t motivated to be active. They’d rather read, play with Legos® or dolls, or spend time on a tablet or smartphone.
Rachel DeHaven, BS, an exercise physiologist with the Healthy Weight Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), has suggestions for motivating a sedentary child.
“For these kids, unconventional exercise may be the key,” DeHaven says. “You can’t just sign them up for a sports program they don’t enjoy; and if you push them too hard in the wrong ways, you risk turning them off from exercise completely. What works is to find activities that are fun for them.”
DeHaven offers some practical suggestions.
Start with your child’s interests
First, make a list. Have your child make a list of things they enjoy doing. Be ready for answers like playing video games or watching YouTube videos.
If all the activities listed involve a screen, start with this question and ask them to make a list with this in mind: “If all of your electronics stopped working and you could not charge them, what would you do?”
Next, highlight anything that might include physical activity, such as going outside or going shopping (you can work in some laps at the mall). Those activities are good places to start when getting them to start moving every day.
If everything on the list lacks movement, it’s time to get inventive.
Think outside the box
Make stationary play active. Take a look at activities that typically require no movement, and get creative to see how you can incorporate some. If video games were the first pick, try sitting on a stability ball instead of the couch, or standing up while playing. Or, introduce your child to an active video game such as Just Dance or Wii™ Sports. If watching videos is on the list, how about watching while riding a stationary bike or doing 20 jumping jacks every five minutes?
If your child enjoys drawing, set up an easel. Standing is more active than sitting. Or use chalk and draw outside on the sidewalk, which involves a lot of movement.
Use every corner. How can you incorporate movement into something like Legos or playing with dolls? Expand the reach and the imagination! Encourage your child to build villages or locations all around the house — a store, zoo, airport, friend’s house or school — then have their figures or dolls visit those spots to act out different activities. If you have stairs, make sure locations are both upstairs and downstairs!
Try something new. Don’t be afraid to suggest activities that weren’t on the list. If your child loves dogs, volunteering to walk a neighbor’s dog could be just the trick. Look for ideas your child may not be aware of, like rock climbing at an indoor facility, martial arts lessons or swimming at the local Y. “Try” is the key word for new activities. Your child may need to try a few before finding one that’s fun and clicks as something they want to do regularly.
Find out what motivates your child
Social motivation. Activity with other people is almost always more fun. As adults, we’re more motivated when we have an exercise buddy. The same social dynamic is true for kids. Play with friends tends to be more active — and you can help that along with a no-screens rule when a friend comes over.
Knowledge. Some children are motivated by knowing the benefits of activity — how it relaxes us, makes us happier, improves our heart health, makes our muscles stronger, and helps keep us from getting sick.
Intrinsic motivation. Other children are more motivated by internal rewards. For example, your child might be more willing to go to the track after school if they know it will help increase their running speed.
Understand what might be holding your child back
Talk about worries. Every child is unique and has their own individual likes and dislikes. It is important to honor these and work with them. It is equally important to address fears, anxieties or frustrations your child may have about physical activity. Some children are reluctant to participate in activities because they are afraid of teasing or not keeping up with the other kids.
Talk to your child about these fears. If your child knows you understand their worries, and have their back, they’ll have more confidence to take the first steps. Celebrate those small changes — they will add up and help set the foundation for a more active lifestyle.
A version of this article originally appeared on Philly.com in September 2017.