The love revolution is not just about what foods we stack in our fridge – it’s a complete re-look at the way we view our bodies and how we look after them. It’s going back to the basics and re-evolving – building our health up again from base camp. And what could be more basic than the way in which our bodies move?
As with food, the way we treat exercise has become completely warped. Just as real food does not come out of a jar, our bodies weren’t designed to sit 23 hours a day and then spend 60 minutes struggling through prescribed gym class drills. If this is how your kid loves to move her body, that’s really great, but there’s so much more to moving our bodies than that.
Our bodies are designed to move all the time, every day. Our bodies are designed to walk amongst the fields gathering crops, or at the very least walk to and from the shops to buy groceries. Our bodies are designed to run, and jump, and climb trees – yes, even the adults! Our bodies are designed to stretch, and be able to touch our toes, and to celebrate the privilege of movement that not everyone is blessed with. This isn’t about getting in the scientific “dietitian’s thirty” – the 30 minutes of exercise a day that research says is necessary to prevent disease – this is about delighting in your body’s abilities, no matter what they are, as often as you can. Let’s teach our children to revel in the gift of their body, to indulge in the pleasure of moving their bodies in as many ways as they can, every single day. Not for health – but for the pure joy of it.
But let us not forget the countless health benefits of exercise. It plays a role in prevention of chronic illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, cancer…). It is enormously good for the brain – mediating moods, concentration, and focus. It increases energy levels, strengthens lungs, strengthens the heart, and improves the immune system. Let’s not turn exercise into something that is “prescribed” to our children, but let’s definitely remember why we want to encourage it (gently, of course!).
The school years are such an amazing, unique time where fun, engaging physical activity is available almost every day of the week – be it in P.E. classes, after school team sports, or early morning training. It is absolutely awesome if this is what your son or daughter loves to do and we applaud and encourage the school environment as such a valuable part of keeping our kids active. Encourage your child to be adventurous with their school participation and to explore all manner of sports that they may never get the chance to try again. School sports can be an amazing platform to create lifelong athletes, both amateur and professionals, as well as teaching priceless skills such as teamwork and patience.
However, let’s not limit our movement to the coach’s whistle. Even if your kid partakes in every possible school sports, there comes a time (holidays, Sundays, graduating matric) when those sports won’t be available to them, and we need to prepare them to continue to move in spite of that. And let’s not forget the kids who don’t enjoy school sports, who don’t make the team, who get teased on the field, or who can’t fit sports into their academic and cultural schedule. For these kids especially, organised sport can not only be unavailable, but a source of genuine stress – which only serves to limit their physical activity throughout school and beyond. Who knows how many adults avoid exercise because of negative experiences they had with activity as a child.
First things first: Start to move yourself. It’s no good sitting on the couch and telling your kids to go play. Take up an active hobby – be it walking, hiking, or gardening. Make it something fun – bring your dog along, participate in competitions or fun runs. Show your children that exercise isn’t half an hour of punishment a day, but an interwoven part of your life that you love. Then, if they like, ask themto join you.
Think out of the box with exercise – it doesn’t have to be all about school. There is no reason your teenager can’t walk a Park Run, or participate in a 10km with his dad. Buy a second hand bike and go zooting through the park. Try something less conventional – Nia dancing is an unstructured, expressive form of dance available at many studios and gyms; your daughter might love to try some mixed martial arts; your son may love ballet. Choose an activity that suits their personality – introverts may prefer hiking to playing soccer with 10 others; while extroverts may love competing in a judo competition in front of a crowd. If your son loves to read, let him listen to audio books on a walk, if your daughter struggles with stress, give child yoga a bash.
We discourage the use of calorie counters, pedometers, or fitness armbands that measure accomplishments and distance. Introducing judgement into movement will only backfire as our children come to view exercise as a source of stress. Let’s encourage our children to assess their activity based on how they feel, their energy levels before and after, the fun that they had. Of course if your child is driven by competition, there is nothing wrong with team sports or running races to satisfy that drive – but don’t make it the focus 24/7.
Emphasise that exercise is a way to look after yourself, and not something that “should” be done. If you want to discuss the benefits with your child, focus on short term as well as long term benefits – it is very difficult for a 10 year old to care about their cardiovascular health in 20 years’ time. Discuss how well you sleep after you go to gym, discuss how nice it is to be strong enough to move boxes, discuss how you enjoy climbing stairs without panting, discuss how easily you can focus at work if you move regularly. If your child genuinely hates a sport or an activity, don’t push it to the point where it becomes traumatic. If it isn’t making them feel better overall, it isn’t working. Keep on hunting until you find that activity that your child will look forward to – if you embark on this journey with love, care and patience, you will find it.