It’s been a long winter, and we’re ALMOST at that beautiful time of year where we no longer need to bundle up those little bodies into snowsuits and squish those feet into those almost too tight boots. And then, there will be no good excuse for staying indoors and whiling away the hours inactively. But the reality is – there is no GOOD excuse for staying indoors and remaining inactive, regardless of the weather. And, if you allow yourself to use the weather excuse not to get out, there will always be a good excuse (it’s too hot….. it’s too windy….. it’s too wet on the ground). When my children were younger I used to jog outdoors at 6:30 A.M. – all year long. In winter, that was the most beautiful time of the day. The stars were shining brightly, it was quiet and peaceful, and the wind was usually as light as it was going to be on that particular day. The best part about running outside in the winter was the daily revelation that I was not going to freeze to death if I spent time outside; in fact, the exhilaration that I felt at the end of the run made facing a Winnipeg winter day so much easier. After all – I had been there, done that, and it was a great experience! Back in the day, I was the first one in the house to suggest that we all bundle up and go outside to build a quinzhee (you should try it – it’s loads of fun, and it makes a good toboggan run when it has run its course; just make sure you get good instructions on how to build it properly), pour a skating rink in the backyard, or walk to the park and play on the structures. Don’t get me wrong - it was not always easy to wrap my head around the number on the thermometer, or to succumb to that feeling of being so tired that I just wanted to park my derriere on the couch. But I learned one lesson back then that I remind myself of daily – expending energy begets energy. No matter how tired or cold I felt, and how many good reasons there were to not go out and jog – if I made it out the door, I came back with a magical source of energy. These days, I don’t have children to play with outside, and my dog is a wimp (she hates going outside and she hates walking regardless of the weather). It would be easy for me to give in to her resistance, and to my own instinct to park on the couch. But I know that walking is good for her, and I remember that energy begets energy. I smile when we get home from our little ‘walk’ and watch this tiny dog whose favorite position is sprawled on the couch wind up and start running around the house like the Road Runner.
An article in the Globe and Mail from November 2016 reported that ‘the annual ParticipAction report card gave Canadian kids a D- for their level of physical activity, the fourth year in a row they received that grade. Researchers estimated only nine per cent of kids aged five to 17 get the recommended minimum of 60 minutes of “heart-pumping activity” a day’. Combine that with the current knowledge that ‘sitting is the new smoking’, it is apparent that parents need to recognize that ensuring our children are physically active is as important as making sure that they use sunscreen and buckle up their seatbelts. In Eat, Move, Sleep, Tom Rath described sitting as one of the most dangerous health threats of modern times - associated with an earlier demise due to a variety of ailments (cancer, heart disease). I’m not an alarmist, and I don’t usually freak out when I read about the newest health calamities. However, there was something about these studies that resonated and made intuitive sense. I started to think about our sedentary society, and how our children sit at desks for hours at school, and then often come home and spend time in the evening and on weekends inside – reading, on the couch in front of a screen, working at a computer, or in their bedrooms connecting with friends on social media. What can we do to counteract this long-term health hazard? It seems that it is as important to help them develop better physical activity habits as it would be to help them develop other good habits that we have successfully cultivated (like putting on sunscreen and seatbelts).
When Tom Rath’s book came out on the market, there was an explosion of technology ready to be sold to promote ‘the fix’. Activity trackers (like the FitBit) were bought to remind people to get up and walk regularly throughout the day, and strive for a 10,000 step goal. Companies that recognized the value of promoting exercise for physical and mental well-being even bought their employees activity trackers and offered break activities (like stretch breaks and yoga). If you are one of the lucky ones to work for a company with brilliant management, I hope that that didn’t stop you from recognizing that your work day doesn’t end at five. Clearly, it’s an important parental role to ensure that our children grow up feeling as committed to daily physical activity as they are to checking their email!
How do we that? Typically, it doesn’t take much encouragement to get a young child to go outside with you and play. You may have to make the idea a little enticing by occasionally adding in a little novelty - like walk or drive to the park and play on the structure, go to the dog park, check out the Fork’s. Winnipeg is finally recognizing that there is no need to stay indoors when the thermometer goes below zero, and the city is exploding with new outdoor activities for families. But eventually, children develop into independent beings, and they don’t always want to ‘hang-out’ with their families. Many parents give up when the resistance is high (‘why should I tear my hair out trying to force them to go out and have fun?’). Here is where a little creativity and Psychology can help you overcome that hurdle. Take the lead from the companies that successfully got their employees to be active. They gave them opportunities to engage in fun activities at breaks, and then gave them activity trackers that allowed them to set personal goals, and keep track of their goal achievement. You can do the same, by having all of the family members set individual goals, and keep track of goal attainment. If you have a few extra dollars, you can purchase cheap activity trackers on Groupon or Amazon (they have kid’s versions), and you can make a chart with a piece of construction paper and markers. Put in some visual icons for activities that can be easily done independently (like skipping, jumping jacks, push-ups). The Psychology of this intervention is very powerful – we know that being rewarded for positive behavior increases the frequency of that behavior. We also know that setting an intention at the start of the day and thinking about it throughout the day makes it more likely that the behavior will occur (e.g., just thinking about achieving 10,000 steps makes it more likely that you will walk up that flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator). Embrace the technology monsters that we have created, and use them to your advantage (you can play tennis and baseball on the W-II Fit game, dance-dance-revolution, or check out the fun at www.gonoodle.com). Eventually, after years of making the effort to nurture an active lifestyle, it will become part of a life-long healthy habit for both you and your child.