Encouraging Your Preteen to Get Fit
Hailey Loeffler walks about half a mile to school and back, except in the winter. Even then, she'll walk on occasion. She took two dance classes in the fall and stopped when hockey started up. Soon, she'll be running track. She skis. In the first half of the summer, she rides her bike about two miles to town to take a theater class. After class, the kids usually go to the river to swim. The second half of the summer, she spends in an intensive dance program. Loeffler even placed third in a bike race three summers ago, competing against women three times her age. Whew! Believe it or not, Loeffler, who lives in Colorado, is only 11-years-old.
Above Average Preteen
The average day for a preteen – 9-12-years-old – is much more sedentary than the average day for kids like Loeffler. According to "America's Healthiest Mom," Jyl Steinback, a personal trainer and health expert, kids watch too much TV and play too many video games. Plus, the average school day is void of physical activity. "[There's] too much sitting around," she says.
Preteens balance on a precipice between childhood and adulthood. They also flirt with obesity. Steinback cites a 54 percent increase in obesity in children ages 6-11 over the past 20 years – and this is a conservative estimate. Physical activity declines with age, and because less than 30 percent of elementary and middle school students have daily physical education classes, parents have to step in and encourage healthy trends in their preteens.
If preteens continue poor habits – whether it's drinking a lot of soda or watching a lot of TV – they'll get lazy, overweight, underachieve and start to believe that they can't do as much as others, says Erika Karres, a preteen expert with over 35 years of experience. "This is the time to rein in the weight gain," she says. "For kids to reach their full potential, parents have to participate with a sense of humor, flexibility, little hints and their own best example."
Above Average Family
Some of Karres' suggestions include increasing your preteen's sleep time, examining their food intake, adding vegetables and fruits, and teaching them that the best TV channel is Channel O-F-F. She also suggests letting them have a pet, which requires activity and relieves stress.
The most important change is to make exercise a family affair. When exercise is done as a family, the child associates the action with healthy living, not a health problem, says Steinback. She also encourages parents to help children find activities they enjoy, because this builds self-confidence along with strength and endurance.
"Keep it fun, not competitive," Steinback says. "Expose children to all types of activities at a young age, and let them find their 'exercise niche.' Plan family outings and vacations around physical activities the family enjoys. Give children chores that require physical exertion. Choose fitness-oriented gifts (jump rope, bike, basketball, etc.) to match your child's interests and skill level."
Don't forget to listen to your kids and ease up if they're tired, injured or bored, Steinback says. They must enjoy the activity to make it a habit. Stick with the plan, too. "It takes 21 days to become a habit and 30 days to become a lifestyle," she says. "Change is always hard, but if done as a family, it is a lot easier."
Above Average Results
You should see results immediately. "Preteens are happier mentally, physically, spiritually when they feel good about themselves," Steinback says. "Their work at home and school will improve just by moving their bodies and making healthy choices."
Loeffler says she loves being active; it makes her feel like she's accomplished a goal. It makes her proud that she's made an effort, and in her own words, "it's totally fun." When asked what motivates her, she says it's her desire to learn and have fun and the support she receives from her parents.
Though she might sound like it, Loeffler's not perfect. She has a junk food habit that her mother, Patti Mathews, is trying to curb. "The bottom line is that they're going to do what they want before you know it," Mathews says. "And while I can, I'd like to encourage her to take care of herself and lead by example."