I have video evidence of the first time my now five-year-old daughter recognized that being strong is empowering. In the clip from two years ago, she’s struggling to carry a stuffed teddy bear nearly twice her size across the living room as several adults flank her trying to help. “I’m strong!” she protests as she fights to keep the giant toy from knocking her down. When she makes it successfully to her destination, she is beaming with pride.
Because exercise and the pursuit of strength is a part of my daily life, it’s always been part of hers, too.
Raising active kids matters when it comes to their physical and mental health: Exercise positively affects cognitive function, social behaviours and mental health, helps kids make healthier choices for themselves and sets them up for better health outcomes throughout their lives. And yet, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada only about 44 per cent of Canadian youth get the 60 minutes a day of physical activity recommended for kids ages 5 to 11 (grown-ups aren’t doing much better, with only about 49 per cent getting the recommended 150 minutes a week).
Just shuttling our kids to extracurriculars and sitting on the sideline doesn’t have the same effect as when we get in on the action (if we are physically able). Exercising with your kids and letting them see you exercise can also make a significant impact on how they view fitness, their bodies and their self-worth for years to come.
If you’re not already exercising with your kids, here’s more about why it’s important and how to get started.
Set them up for long-term health and good habits
Both kids and adults are becoming increasingly sedentary, according to a meta-analyses in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity. In children, that uptick can result in reduced physical and psychosocial health, poor self-esteem and decreased academic performance. By modelling a strong relationship with fitness, finding ways to involve our children in our routines and explaining the benefits in a simple cause-and-effect way that makes sense to them, we can decrease some of those risks.
“When you exercise, you’re going to sleep better. When you sleep better, you eat better, you think better,” says Julie Sawchuk, a trainer at Toronto’s Bomb Fitness where parents and kids often get the opportunity to exercise together. “It’s about instilling good habits and an understanding of why we work out.”
Help them understand early that exercise has a purpose beyond appearances
How many times have you used the phrase “I have to work out”? Or suggested that you’re heading to the gym to “work off” a big meal? Exercising together offers an opportunity to teach your kids that the purpose of movement is about self-love and self-care, not punishment. It might make you remember that, too.
“I hope the biggest takeaway is that exercise is not something that we have to do, it’s something that we want to do, and we have a privilege of doing,” says Sasha Exeter, an entrepreneur, content creator and podcaster of getting active with her daughter. “And I never want her to think of it as a chore or a means to something else, like a means to weight loss, a means to looking a certain way, a means to fitting in a pair of jeans or a microskirt.”
Seventy per cent of children will drop out of sports by 13 years of age, and by 14, girls drop out at a rate two times greater than boys, according to a meta-analyses in the medical journal Cureus. Girls who experience criticism of their bodies show decreased participation in physical activity. If we can teach them now to appreciate their bodies for what they are capable of, not how they look, we stand a chance at combatting some of those voices.
“Our children are sponges,” Exeter says. “They want to be just like us. So whether the way we speak about our bodies is positive or negative, they are going to do and say the exact same things.”
Teach them about the positive outcomes of failure
My older daughter loves competing and hates losing, so I make sure she can see me fail, whether that’s missing a lift in the gym when she’s watching, or showing her videos from competitions where I came in dead last.
Learning to fail early in life promotes a growth mindset – a term coined by Stanford University researcher and psychologist Carol Dweck – to mean the belief that even though you might struggle at something, your abilities aren’t fixed, and you can improve with time and effort. That’s something they’ll not only use in sports, but in school and other areas of life as well, and research in the journal JAMA Pediatrics has shown a growth mindset is important to children’s overall health and development. They also learn that what seems impossible today might just be possible tomorrow.
How to get started
First things first: You don’t need a fancy gym or equipment. Family exercise can be a jog around the block, a hike or even kicking a soccer ball around an open field. It’s more about getting into a routine and setting up the expectation that your family appreciates the importance of moving together.
As the weather turns colder, consider less obvious opportunities, such as racing up the hill after sledding down and shovelling snow together to see who can make the biggest pile. Look to local community centres for free access to swimming pools, basketball courts and skating rinks.
“To them, it’s just so much fun,” says Sawchuck. “But it’s also about seeing their parent taking care of their own health. It really is a gift that you give to your children.
Alyssa Ages is a journalist and the author of Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength, published by Avery/Penguin Random House in September, 2023. She is also a strongman competitor and endurance athlete, as well as a former personal trainer and group fitness instructor.