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How to Teach Your Preteen That Physical Activity Can Be Fun

While you scoop out the last of the potato chips with one hand and check the offerings on television with the other, you note that your 12-year-old son is totally mesmerized by his new X-Box game. You tell him to go outside and get some exercise, but the only movement you see is his fingers on the controller. You spent all day behind the computer at the office and now you are busy with everything that has to get done, making dinner, paying the bills, calling your parents and organizing playdates. You try to get your fifth grader into her soccer gear and out the door. She complains all the way; she hates soccer. You are about ready to give in and let her stay home.

According to Dr. Mary Gavin, medical editor for KidsHealth.org and co-author of Fit Kids: A Practical Guide to Raising Active and Healthy Children – from Birth to Teens (DK Publishing, 2004), your kids are typical preteens and no longer want to participate in organized sports. "Most kids drop out because they are no longer enjoying themselves, so parents can play an important role in helping their child find an activity they will enjoy," she says. "The message should be that it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you are doing something to be active every day."

What You Can Do

Like so many things with kids, getting preteens to engage in physical activity requires persistence, flexibility and literally walking the walk. According to leading fitness expert Kelli Calibrese, preteens may not acknowledge it, but they still watch their parents and follow their lead. The key is to rethink the ways you can support physical activity. Don't insist on organized team sports. Instead, think about how you set the stage for physical activity. Here are some ideas:

  • Bring physical activity home by providing sports equipment. Stock your home with a variety of sports equipment from Frisbees and softballs and gloves to roller blades and bicycles. Make sure that you include proper safety equipment, like knee pads and helmets, in your collection.
  • Add a basketball hoop in the driveway.
  • Take your kids to the pool, climbing wall and skateboard park.
  • Encourage physical activities with friends. As Dr. Gavin notes, friends are very important during the preteen years, so encourage your child to buddy up. Offer to take your preteen and her friend to the climbing wall or to play tennis. Include your child's friends on a family hike. Kids are more likely to go along and enjoy a hike if their friend is along.
  • Engage in physical activities as a family. Dr. Gavin suggests having a joint tennis or golf lesson, but be prepared to lose graciously.
  • Take a walk in the neighborhood or regularly go hiking, suggests Trailmaster John McKinney, author of The Joy of Hiking: Hiking the Trailmaster Way (Wilderness Press, 2005).
  • Have fun with your kids. Go out to the yard and do silly walks. Rowdy hopping, zigging zagging and giant lunges are good exercise and fun while waiting for the bus or trying to entertain a younger brother or sister.
  • Stop at the park on the way home from school.
  • Plan an active vacation. It may include hiking, skiing, water sports or biking.
  • Don't spoil everything. Support your kids rather than being their toughest critic. "Putting kids down discourages their participation in physical activity," Calibrese says.

Walking the Walk

Preteens still look to their parents. Exercising regularly whether it is running, an aerobics class, a daily walk or stretching at the end of the day demonstrates through your actions that everyone should exercise. Parents can show kids how much fun physical activity can be. Dr. Gavin suggests that parents walk the walk by "reducing the amount of time that you and your kids spend in front of a screen, including TV, computer, video games, etc. Remove TVs and computers from bedrooms, and limit the amount of time spent in these sedentary pursuits."

Some schools even provide parents with a chance to walk the walk with their kids. Diane Cramer, a long-time physical education teacher, extends her digi walker program to parents and teachers. Everyone has a goal of 5,000 steps a day or 2.5 miles. Pedometers and a free computer login site keep track of individual and team goals. Cramer finds it a great way to motivate kids as well as adults. The pedometer shows the difference that taking the stairs or walking to school or work makes.

Serving as a good model for your kids may be the most important thing you do at home. Kids resent when parents insist that they do as they say and not as they do. This will only intensify as preteens become teens. Walk the walk, and your preteen may respect you for it. Better yet, your preteen may literally follow in your healthy foot steps.

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