Raising children… I have not set out on this endeavor; although, my wife and I hope to in the future. Typically, I like to prepare when I see things on the horizon, and I recently encountered an opportunity to learn about a unique perspective of childhood development and its effect on children’s immediate and long-term well-being. That aspect is physical activity, and I read more specifically into how parental behaviors, especially modeling, can be determining factors in youth adopting healthy lifestyles that include regular exercise as they move into and through adulthood.

First, let’s identify some benefits of physically active living. Children and adults can experience positive impacts on their weight control, resistance to health conditions and disease, temperament, energy levels, etc. through a physically active lifestyle (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014). The list goes on and includes a multitude of examples such as experiencing more joy in general and even healthier skin. Particularly for youth who are involved in sports, physical activity can lead to positive personality development, stronger relationships with peers, a broader network, and increased senses of personal and social responsibility (Cesnaitiene et al, 2014). Research says they are even less likely to become smokers and will spend less time watching TV (Cesnaitiene et al, 2014).  On the contrary, a lack of exercise during youth can contribute to the development of diabetes, hypertension, colon cancer, depression, osteoporosis, and obesity among some of the many negative examples (Drenowatz et al., 2014).

As I wrap my mind around the idea of parenthood, fitness seems to be a fundamental need parents must provide, but how do they convince children to listen? Moreover, how will the deeper value of self-respect exercise teaches us carry over into their adulthood? I have read conclusively that pressuring children and teens does not work, so a positive approach is necessary. I imagine enabling youth through time and money whether they pursue sports or become regular gym rats is crucial. Whatever they choose, it is obvious parents need to be high level encouragers and “#1 fans.” However, I would be naïve to think leading children to reap the benefits of lifelong exercise is so simple when many of my peers I competed athletically with have already traded their gym memberships in for premium cable packages. Not to mention, I have never met a parent who would let me get away with thinking any part of raising kids is easy, and that is rightfully so. While enabling and encouraging are vital, something else needs to be thrown into the foundation if the idea of physical activity is going to resonate with youth.

After digging, here is what I found—parents need to model. “Parental physical activity is an import factor when it comes to engaging children in sufficient physical activity, especially in organized sports” (Drenowatz et al., 2014). In other words, without witnessing behavioral role modelling through fitness, children and teens are less likely to be involved in sports (Cesnaitiene et al., 2014). For youth, a lifestyle that includes both parents engaging in sufficient amounts of physical activity is linked to their own participation in sports (Cesnaitiene et al., 2014). Therefore, children and adolescents who have active parents will often be found experiencing the benefits of exercise, as well, rather than the downfalls of being inactive—specifically being overweight or obese (Drenowatz et al., 2014). In addition to enabling and encouraging, modeling must me thrown into the mix to convince children and adolescents to be physically active.

Yet, there are many inactive parents who can say their kids are engaging in sports and other avenues of physical activity. However, what is happening in the present is not always a solid predictor of future behavior. The motivations for physical activity change over the seasons of life. Adolescents around the ages of 13-14 are usually extrinsically motivated by competition or other social factors related to their peers (Cesnaitiene et al., 2014). However as people draw nearer to adulthood, engagement in sports and fitness generally decreases, because in part, there are fewer opportunities to participate in team sports or engage in exercise where they can be competitively or socially driven by others. Those still found to be physically active at later stages of adolescents and during adulthood are intrinsically motivated by fitness and well-being (Cesnaitiene et al., 2014). Moreover, children and teens who witness both of their parents being physically active build the values related to maintaining healthy lifestyles in the long-term early in life (Cesnaitiene et al, 2014).

Directly stated, parents are strong determinates of their children being active (Drenowatz et al., 2014). Resolving barriers and positive reinforcement are key strategies to include, but direct modeling is equally critical (Drenowatz et al., 2014). Youth must get involved in regular exercise through sports or other physical activity early in life, because those behaviors are often formed in beginning stages when they accompany adolescents into their adulthood (Drenowatz et al., 2014). Parents must also maintain healthy lifestyles of their own in order to instill with their children values such as well-being, which are more dependable throughout life than external motivators like competition. The importance of exercise will seem more truthful than ever to youth when they see parents participating themselves.

By: Fred Munzenmaier