Childhood is when we learn the habits and thought patterns that we will carry with us all our lives. Yes, that means all the life skills and academics that we typically focus on, but it also means teaching our children how to care for, and about, their bodies. It means helping them develop fitness habits that bring them joy and keep them strong for life, without filling them with body-image baggage and injury.
As a mother and fitness coach, that last part can be really hard, especially this time of year. The new year tends to bring with it loads of media messages about what our bodies should look like. Those messages do more harm than good.
Let’s resolve to make some positive resolutions, and then find some fun ways to work fitness into the coming year. Give these a try:
1. No negative self-talk about our bodies. It can be hard to turn off the inner dialogue about needing to lose weight, or be better in some way, but try not to say any of that out loud.
2.Remind kids (and yourself) that every single body is different. Some are tall, some are short. Our eyes, hair and skin come in all varieties. We are all different, it’s that simple. You can’t exercise yourself into being something that you’re not.
3. Help them focus on what bodies can do, not what they look like. (Or as I like to say, “verbs, not adjectives!”) “It’s so cool that you can jump like that!” “Look how fast you are!”
4. Work physical activity into your family life. It can be hiking, dancing, biking, skiing, swimming… just normalize activity. Don’t even call it “exercise”; just make it a thing that you do together, as normal and essential as eating and sleeping.
With those basics established, how can we help our kids discover joy in fitness?
1. Expose them to as many things as possible, so that they can discover what makes them happy. It could be circus, dance, CrossFit, capoeira, gymnastics or anything else. Let them pick their own activities so they feel like they’re in charge. I like the idea of always having one structured activity that they do, but they’re in control of picking what it is. Most kids will bounce around for a while until they find something that they like, which is great. Their body, their choice. There’s no reason to specialize.
2. Ask them how they feel. Sports are a great way for kids to learn how to identify and handle their own feelings. Ask them questions, rather than resorting to “I’m proud of you,” which is about you, not them. Questions like “What was the hardest part?” “What was your favorite part?” “What surprised you?” and “What did you learn?” offer your child a way to explore their feelings. They also offer you a way to connect with your kids and form communication patterns that you’ll really want when they’re older. Yes, sometimes it’s like trying to put socks on a rooster, but keep asking anyway. Even if they don’t answer you, they’re learning to expand the way they think about things beyond just “good and bad” or “win and lose.”
3. Unstructured physical activity is equally important. Whether it’s playing on the playground, kicking a ball around with a friend or anything else, it’s important to keep your kids connected to physical activity without the rules and expectations of sports. As fun as organized sports are for some kids, it’s more important to instill a habit of general activity. Being active “for no reason” is often the best way to stay active for a lifetime.
4. Focus on fun. Especially when they’re young, it doesn’t matter if they’re learning concrete athletic skills, it just matters that they’re having fun. If you’re able, expose them to lots of things; let them figure out what they enjoy doing. Why? Because humans are fun-seekers; this is how you form the habit of fitness as a lifestyle. Besides, our bodies don’t care if we’re “winning,” our bodies just want to move. Our joints and muscles want to be stressed in order to stay strong and agile. Your lower back doesn’t care if you’re the best at anything; it just cares that you keep all your muscles strong to protect it as you age.
I think our society overthinks fitness. I think we’ve become obsessed with achievement and competition. Sometimes when I drive past a playground, and I see all the children running and jumping and swinging and throwing, I wonder when they’ll lose that. That’s so sad. At some point, almost every adult I work with has lost the ability to swing from the monkey bars, do a cartwheel, or run breathlessly in pursuit of nothing at all. More than that, they seem to have lost the unbridled joy that children have when they play.
That’s why when I think about fitness, I think about it as a lifelong daily habit that enables us to do everything we want to do in life, for as long as possible. No rules, no winners, no losers. Fitness is about two things: joy and longevity.
When you look at it that way, fitness is both a physical and a psychological foundation for a happy, healthy life. So as we’re making New Year’s resolutions, let’s resolve to reframe how we think about fitness with our families.
[ Related: 10 kid-friendly workouts around Seattle. ]
Alyssa Royse and her husband, Brady Collins, own Rocket CrossFit in South Seattle. Although she’s been coaching fitnessy things since the days of step aerobics and high-top Reeboks, Alyssa spends most of her time now consulting on the intersection of fitness and inclusivity. When she’s not doing that, she’s probably in the gym. She has a 21-year-old daughter who happens to be a competitive athlete; she settled on weightlifting at age 16, after hating pretty much all sports until then, and yes, they tried everything. You can often find all three of them in the gym together.