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How to Help Your Kids Build Good Habits

Five tips to use the summer to go beyond screen time.

Key points

  • Regular exercise provides many benefits to our physical and mental health.
  • Summer can be an ideal time for families to build good exercise habits.
  • Being consistent yet flexible is key to staying physically active.

Kids look forward to summer vacation all year long. For some kids, this might be the lure of what they hope will be unlimited screen time. In many homes, summer may not be a free-for-all, but it certainly does release kids from the constraints of the completed school year and give them time to decompress, pursue other interests, and try new activities.

The long and relatively carefree days of summer are the perfect time to help your child develop healthier habits, such as getting regular exercise and being in control of their screen time. Self-monitoring of screen time will serve your child well in the future, as it teaches balance and self-control. If parents can learn how to help their children build good habits for exercise, it will become easier to help them monitor other behaviors and limit their own screen time as well. Regular exercise is not only beneficial for our bodies but also has strong effects on our mental abilities. This can vastly improve a child’s success in school. What better way to use summer vacation?

Developing a habit might seem easy, but it’s not! It requires time, commitment, and motivation. The results of a study conducted at the University College of London indicate that it requires an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. Coincidentally, that’s almost exactly the amount of time you’ll have during your child’s summer vacation to develop the habit of exercise.

This idea of exercise being important doesn’t only apply to children, but adults too! For adults, exercise not only provides a variety of physical and emotional benefits, but it also changes your brain. Exercise increases the production of a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which improves cognitive skills and helps you manage stress.

Creating an exercise habit over the summer also means getting your kids outside and reducing their screen time. You may even be able to leverage screen time, not just as a reward for exercising but also as a tool that guides and inspires. Fitness games are available on virtually every console and device, and there is ample evidence that sports-based video games increase sports participation. Virtual reality is becoming mainstream, and it is not difficult to get kids and teens to be enthusiastic about VR-based exercise by watching a few YouTube videos.

If you’re planning to make exercise a regular habit for your kids, you’ll want to be knowledgeable about the benefits of exercise. You will need to be able to explain the cognitive and emotional benefits of regular exercise to help your kids to understand the value of an exercise habit for their brains and bodies. The research is compelling: Kids who engage in regular vigorous exercise attend better, perform better in school, and remember better than their less active peers.

Here are five tips to help your kids build good exercise habits:

Once you begin a regular exercise routine, be sure to make your kids aware of their improving fitness and focus.

1. Be consistent but flexible.

Making exercise a habit will require that you set a minimum number of days per week (five days per week should be adequate, though daily is ideal to set the habit in stone). Talk with your kids about exercise every day so that it’s always in the forefront of their minds. Try to have a daily time and routine for exercise but be flexible about how you go about creating a habit. If a playdate with friends is spent running around outside or swimming in a pool, let it count as the day’s workout. If you or your child gravitate toward one specific type of exercise, make a conscious effort to mix it up.

2. Make sure exercise is accessible.

Even if you live in a warmer climate, it probably isn’t practical or possible to go swimming every day in your backyard pool. If you aren’t prepared to take your child to a pool five times a week during the colder months, you’ll need to make sure the child has access to and is comfortable with another form of exercise. Be willing to go to a local gym, brave the cold weather for a winter walk with the child, or find a way to make indoor exercise engaging. Fitness video games can make living room workouts easy and fun. You can even try pairing an exercise bike with screen time, such as watching a show on Netflix or listening to audiobooks or podcasts.

3. Find an activity your child likes to do.

Your child doesn’t need to love it, but it needs to bring him or her satisfaction. If necessary, add music or other screen-based entertainment to make it engaging.

Alternating between exercises, such as walking, running, and hiking, might keep them enthusiastic. Introducing new physical activities has the added benefit of getting your child to try something at which the child is not even aware he or she excels. Finding something new the child is good at, even if it is difficult, can bring a sense of satisfaction that keeps the child coming back for more.

4. Cross-training is as good for you as it is for your kids.

Alternating between different physical activities exercises different muscles and calls on different areas of the brain. Dancing, team sports, biking, and running all require varying combinations of executive functions. Encouraging your child to cross-train might mean enrolling the child in seasonal sports (from soccer to basketball to baseball or softball) or establishing a family adventure day every week that includes different kinds of active play and exercise.

Prophsee Journals/Unsplash
Source: Prophsee Journals/Unsplash

5. Stay local.

Anything you can do that is near your home and takes advantage of your local resources is just more practical and repeatable. You can use the gymnasium that is nearby, even if it doesn’t offer as many options as the one the next town. If you live near a bike path or a park, make that the destination for walks and bike riding. If you live in the city, try walking places instead of driving.

If you take the time to make exercise a habit this summer, be sure to find a way to accommodate that habit during the school year as well. You may need to adjust your demands around homework so that exercise, which is likely to help your child stay focused and be more efficient in completing homework, comes before sitting down with schoolbooks or screen time. Consider rearranging your dinner schedule so that the family gets their exercise before eating dinner.

If you are short on time, briefer interval training has been shown to have great physical and mental health benefits. You’ll see the difference, not only in your child’s performance at school but in his or her attitude and focus at home.

More from Randy Kulman Ph.D.
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