TIME Parenting

How to Help Your Kids Stay Fit Even if They’re Not Athletic

Roberto Westbrook—Getty Images/Image Source

The key is to look at fitness a different way

Getting fit is a classic New Year’s resolution.

But ironically, New Year’s commitments to get fit come in the dead of winter–when many of us would just like to be curled up on the couch under a thick blanket. And some kids just aren’t that into sports.

So how can parents encourage kids to stay fit during the winter months–and throughout life?

The key, says Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, obesity medicine and nutrition physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center and Harvard Medical School, is to reorient how we look at fitness.

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“For a lot of people,” Stanford says, “fitness only means weight loss. We need to look at it as a way of improving our overall quality of life, longevity, and happiness.”

And research, she says, supports the idea that better fitness leads to better life: people who are physically fit tend to have a lower risk of chronic disease and depression. And students who participate in athletics even tend to score higher academically.

A lifetime of fitness, Stanford says, starts in childhood: If parents “instill these ideas of being physically fit really early in life, they will only perpetuate themselves” into adulthood.

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Parents can set elementary kids on the path to a lifetime of fitness by asking them what physical activities they enjoy doing. “Whatever you enjoy is what you will do,” Stanford says. And even “very young kids can tell you what they like and don’t like.” Parents can also set a tone for young kids by staying fit themselves. If kids see their parent going out for a run, they see it as a thing humans do.

Middle school kids, Stanford says, are starting to notice their bodies–and that some students are more athletically gifted than others. At this age, Stanford says, it’s crucial for parents to “encourage kids who aren’t standing out not to give up on whatever they really enjoy doing.” And even for top athletes, Stanford says, parents should emphasize that the ultimate payoff of fitness isn’t winning in a competitive environment: the reward is being healthy and happy.

High school kids are on the cusp of adulthood, when school teams and classes will no longer be there to encourage fitness. So it’s a good time for parents to help kids develop habits that will help them stay fit throughout life. One way, Stanford says, is to help kids find fitness opportunities beyond school, like local leagues and rec centers that have fitness activities for all ages. High school kids are also old enough to start taking responsibility for how much exercise they get: ideally, one hour a day. And, Stanford says, parents can encourage busy students that all that exercise doesn’t have to happen at once. “You can do this in spurts,” she says. “Ten minutes here, 20 minutes here.”

The bottom line, at any age, says Stanford: let kids know that being active is about much more than meeting weight or competitive goals. The real reason to stay fit throughout life is “to produce a happier, healthier them.”

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