My kids are not natural athletes. Some might think this is ironic, since I’ve carved out a career as a group fitness instructor. But the truth is, I was never a sporty kid.
At least I thought I wasn’t. I shied away from competitive sports, loathed gym class and always scored miserably on the rope climb and bent arm hang during those annual fitness tests. Needless to say, I never earned a varsity letter.
Yet, looking back, I was really, really good at catching the football during elementary recess. After school I rode my bike everywhere, roller skated on every slick slab of blacktop I could find, and loved to play tennis with my best friend at the neighborhood park.
I was always moving, exploring and playing, literally until the street lights came on.
Today, things are different. In our all-or-nothing culture, it seems kids are either labeled athletes or they’re not. They either make the team, score the plays and travel to tournaments every weekend, or they sink deeper into screen time, buying into the notion that they’re just not good at sports.
I see this in my own son and daughter. They’ve dabbled with joining teams, but often reluctantly and with hard-fought success. They’re never standout players and they veer more toward the cerebral than the physical.
But that’s OK. Or is it?
Physical fitness is crucial to health, and as parents, it’s important that we pay as much attention to our child’s activity levels as we do their academic success.
The good news is that there are some simple ways to help increase a child’s physical IQ.
Not every child has a natural aptitude for athletics, but like everything else, physical fitness can be learned.
According to Dr. Kelly Orringer, division director of general pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, being active is critical for a child’s short-term success and long-term health.
“It’s important for all sorts of reasons,” Orringer says. “Physical activity will burn calories and decrease children’s risk for becoming overweight as well as the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood – most types of cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. In the short run, they’ll sleep better and be able to focus better in school.”
Emerging research also shows, she says, that regular physical activity improves academic performance across many indicators, and, in adolescents, helps regulate anxiety and mood swings.
“Being active doesn’t mean you have to be on a high-level performance travel team of some sort. You just need to be out moving your body,” Orringer says. “The earlier you start, the better.”
But, she adds, it’s never too late.
“The body is very adaptable. We’ve all seen those stories about people who have never done any type of physical activity, then begin exercising and run the Boston Marathon,” she says. “Start small and make achievable goals to have some wins.”
DO know the guidelines
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have strong physical activity recommendations for children and teenagers.
Both organizations agree that children should be moderately active at least 60 minutes every day, and should engage in vigorous activity for at least 30 minutes at least three days a week.
“Vigorous activity for kids might be playing tag at recess, playing soccer or basketball, going to sports team practice and running enough to be getting short of breath at times and sweaty,” Orringer says.
DO teach your kids the three elements of fitness
Endurance: This is developed through regular aerobic activity, which engages large muscles, gets the heart beating faster and breath coming shorter, according to KidsHealth.org. Aerobic activity strengthens the heart and improves the body’s ability to get oxygen to all its cells. For kids, endurance comes through such pursuits as bicycling, skating, tennis and even walking.
Strength: Achieved through applying resistance, strength training builds bone and muscle mass, helps prevent injury and increases metabolism. Examples include climbing trees, swinging from monkey bars and practicing handstands. Older kids can do push-ups, pull-ups and weightlifting.
Flexibility: Stretching muscles leads to greater elasticity and range of motion. It also contributes to muscle tone and control. Kids are often naturally flexible and practice stretching when they reach to high shelves, turn cartwheels or do yoga.
DO define your child’s physical profile
There are three types of fitness personalities, and knowing your child’s will help you understand how to boost their physical IQ.
Non-athlete: May lack athletic ability, interest in physical activity or both. These children need creative ways to move that don’t seem like “exercise.”
Casual athlete: This type is interested in being active, but isn’t a star player and may get discouraged in a competitive athletic environment. They will often be open to independent sports and activities where they can excel on their own.
Athlete: Has natural athletic ability, thrives in a competitive environment and enjoys practicing to develop skills. This type can be encouraged to help non-active children get moving by including them in activities.
DO NOT be a couch potato
Show your kids you value physical fitness by being active yourself. Kids notice when you head out for a golf game or go running after work. Consider joining a softball team or sharing your excitement about your new cardio drumming class.
“If parents are incorporating activity into their daily lives, it sets a good example,” Orringer says.
DO NOT underestimate walking
Walking is a great place to start with kids who aren’t naturally active. Aim to walk to school three days a week or encourage kids to walk your dog – or your neighbor’s – through the neighborhood.
Walk with them and make it fun by playing music and picking up the pace as the beat gets faster, or speed up to the next street sign or landmark.
“Walking is a great way to get kids moving and they may be able to increase their rate and distance over time,” Orringer says. Once kids build endurance, add weight-bearing exercise with running or jumping rope, and strength exercise with sit-ups or push-ups.
“Incorporate more from a walking base,” Orringer suggests.
DO limit screen time
Common Sense Media reports that kids under 9 are spending more than two hours a day on screens, and screen time increases with age.
“Many children have more screen time than activity time each day. It should be the opposite,” Orringer says. “We know the older kids get, and once they get their own screens, we see teenagers spending six, eight, 10 hours a day on a screen of some sort.”
This puts kids on a trajectory to become continually less active, increasing their risk for obesity, she says.
Consider taking the “Wait until 8th” pledge to delay giving your child a device, and limit screen time to less than two hours a day.
Not sure how to do it? Check out these easy ways to cut kids’ screen time.
DO be prepared for action
Have sports equipment available to grab and go. Watch for gently used equipment at consignment stores or swaps, and request balls, kites, jump ropes and other active toys for gifts.
Collect backyard games like horseshoes, croquet, bocce and tether ball, and keep a Frisbee in your car.
DO seek out active opportunities
Look for family nights or other physical activities at your child’s school or community center. Watch for free outdoor festivals with bounce houses and other kids’ offerings. Use active opportunities as rewards for high grades and good behavior.
Also be willing to sign your kids up and drive them to and from active events, and participate with them whenever you can.
DO share active things together
Build activity into family routines. Make weekend plans to explore a new part of town, hike a new trail, or go rollerblading at a local roller rink or swimming in a nearby public swimming pool. Indoors, join your kids to build a fort, play indoor tag or set up a water bottle bowling lane.
“If families set a foundation, kids are more likely to continue being active during college and into adulthood,” Orringer explains.
DO NOT rely on organized sports
Having the idea that your child is going to pick a sport and go to the Olympics does not set them up for fun and activity as they get older, Orringer says.
Enroll them in sports, but then pay attention.
“It’s important to assess whether they’re having fun and to encourage them to stick it out for some defined period of time,” Orringer notes.
After a season, recap and decide whether to try something different next time.
DO NOT let your surroundings limit you
Orringer admits not everyone has easy access to active opportunities due to limited income, lack of transportation or proximity.
“It can be challenging in certain neighborhoods where parents aren’t comfortable letting their children play outside without a lot of supervision,” Orringer says.
This requires strategizing and problem solving. Look for parks and playgrounds close to bus lines, check the YMCA for inexpensive options, and look for free programs at your church, rec center or school, like lunchtime running clubs.
“You can often find low- or no-cost opportunities to be on non-competitive teams to learn the basics of a variety of different sports to see what they enjoy doing,” Orringer says.
DO choose activities that are age-appropriate
According to the CDC, younger children like to move between short bursts of activity followed by short periods of rest, while adolescents do more structured and longer activities.
Expecting your young child to sustain focus for extended sports instruction can cause them to become frustrated, while older children may be bored if the activity is undefined.
DO make it social
Invite friends or classmates over and encourage them to dress for the weather so they can play outside whatever the season. Turn off video games and suggest hide and seek or treasure hunts.
Take little kids to the playground. Bring older children to a tennis court and teach them forehand, backhand and etiquette so they can practice together.
“We want kids to be having fun,” Orringer says. “We want them to feel like it’s social, enjoying the people they’re with and having some success.”
DO notice and praise
Whatever you try, invite your kids to talk about activities that they find enjoyable or not. Give them high-fives for trying new things and making small achievements. Honor their fitness level while encouraging them to strive for more.
Share your own fitness stories and feelings with them and open a dialogue that shows you value being active and appreciate the challenges involved in stepping outside your comfort zone.
“There is so much we can do from the birth of a child through college to encourage healthy habits. It’s an important and critical piece of pediatric care,” Orringer says, adding that she fondly recalls a wide range of active pursuits with her own two children. “The physical activities we’ve done as a family have helped us form some of our best memories.”
DO go beyond the traditional
Today’s kids have more opportunities than ever for getting active in a unique and fun way. Here are a few options close to home.
Young fencers get an aerobic workout while improving their coordination and strategic thinking skills. Try it out at:
Salle d’Etroit Fencing Academy
- Address: 36745 Amrhein Road, Livonia
- Phone: 734-432-5014
Renaissance Fencing Club
- Address: 408 Oliver Drive, Troy
- Phone: 248-731-4764
Kids get to practice yoga poses while “flying” in a fabric hammock above a yoga mat. This trending activity is great for improving strength and balance. Give it a shot at:
Aviary Aerial & Circus Arts
- Address: 2875 Boardwalk Drive, Suite Ann Arbor
- Phone: 734-707-1074
- Address: 2121 Cole St., Birmingham
- Phone: 248-480-0452
- Address: 1321 Watson St., Detroit
- Phone: 313-674-6424
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.