Teaching children to love exercise is crucial

"Dad, when we wake up tomorrow morning, can we please do some push-ups and some exercises?"

These are the last words my six-year old daughter whispered to me on Sunday night before giving me a kiss and falling asleep, exhausted after we had been swimming, played tennis and gone on a bike ride with family friends that day.

The best way to have fit and healthy kids, is to be a fit and healthy adult.

Now, as an ex-athlete and sports coach, I am probably a little biased on the exercise front, but I felt a warm glow knowing my little girl already has a positive attitude towards exercise. I'm definitely not the pushy parent who wants to live unfulfilled sporting dreams through my children, but I will unashamedly do all I can to support this as she matures into a young adult.

Set the example

As a speaker and consultant on fitness and wellbeing, I'm frequently asked: "What is the best way to impact my children to lead a fit and healthy life?" My answer is always the same: "The best way to have fit and healthy kids, is to be a fit and healthy adult." Looked at another way, the best way to have unfit and overweight kids is to be an unfit and overweight adult. Some people might not like this, but it is fundamentally true.

We are all busy with way too much to do and not enough time to squeeze everything in. And we are trying to be all things to all people – employee, manager, partner, parent, friend, community member, executive, mentor, role model – the list goes on. Being busy is not going to change. But your attitude towards making exercise a part of your family routine can.

A 2010 study in the International Journal of Paediatrics looked at parents' influence on young children's physical activity. A total of 102 preschool-aged children's family socio-demographics and physical activity habits were analysed, and the results showed that children who received greater parental support and encouragement for activity were significantly more likely to engage in one hour or more of daily movement.

Create opportunities

Parents can promote physical activity not only by limiting TV and screen time, but also by being highly supportive of their children's active pursuits. Another study, Influence of Parents' Physical Activity Levels on Activity Levels of Young Children, found that children of active fathers are 3.5 times more likely to be active than children of inactive fathers.

Most of us don't need research to back this up. Just look at how you were influenced towards exercise as a young child. Do you remember your mum or dad playing cricket with you in the backyard, or kicking the footy in the park, or riding a bike around the local oval? Thirty years on, I can still remember my dad running me around to athletics carnivals all over the country and spending hours with my brother, sister and I in the backyard.

Busy executive Tracey Dawes-Lucas recently completed her eighth consecutive City to Surf with her children. The Lucas family has completed the 14km course every year for the last eight years and all three of their children have participated in the event every year of their lives. "The City to Surf is now a family tradition and the children look forward to the big race every year," Dawes-Lucas says. "This is a great way to spend time together as a family, and also raise money for charities and support a great cause."

Six tips to encourage your children to exercise

1. Play – build a cubby house, go for a bushwalk, dig holes at the beach, take the dog to the local oval, kick a footy around the park

2. Blend exercise with family time - don't make a big deal about exercising, just build it into your every day life.

3. Switch off technology – regularly turn off the TV, the iPad and the digital devices and encourage your kids to explore, play, imagine, interact and do.

4. Disguise fitness – kids love activities such as surfing, snow skiing, skipping and jumping. Use your imagination and make exercise and adventure fun.

5. Enter an event together – like a fun run, a bike ride or a community walk. I still have fond memories of entering the Glen Innes Fun Run each year with my dad. On Saturday, October 18 the Lucas family is participating in the inaugural RBC Race for the Kids, a 5km family run being held in Sydney's Centennial Park to support the Starlight Children's Foundation. 

6. Exercise yourself – be a positive role model and lead by example.

In a society in which lack of movement and obesity are ever-increasing problems, it is hugely important to lead by example and teach children habits that will be with them for life.

Every day I am reminded in the interactions with my children that being a parent is a huge responsibility. I have no doubt that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a positive outlook towards physical activity.

How do you encourage your children to be fit and healthy?

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