Life Parenting

Friday 29 August 2014

Ten ways to get your children active

A brilliant guide to help get your children moving.

Grainne Cunningham

Published 29/05/2014 | 02:30

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Energy: Grainne’s triplets Harry, Luka and Jack playing football in the local park. Photo: Ronan Lang.
Boy (5-7 years) on mountain bike, smiling, portrait, close-up
Boy (5-7 years) on mountain bike, smiling, portrait, close-up
Girl playing with a hula hoop
Girl playing with a hula hoop

Irish children spend too much time on the couch and too little on their feet, according to a new international report which awarded our little darlings a disappointing D-minus for physical activity.

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According to a study presented at the Global Summit on Physical Activity of Children in Toronto, the average Irish teenager spends a shocking eight hours of their day sitting down and that's not including the time spent buried under the duvet.

Younger children are slightly more active, with just over four in 10 primary-school kids doing the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to physical activity every day. But unsurprisingly, the older we get, the lazier we become. So, as the nation edges ever closer to weighing in as among the fattest in the world, what can we do to get the young out and moving about? With the help of some experts, we have devised a list of top 10 tips to encourage children to get more active.

1. Don't just work out – play more.

This advice comes from Dr Catherine Woods, Head of the School of Health and Human Performance in Dublin City University, who was one of three Irish delegates at the Toronto summit. "Play is key because it prevents children from sitting and they are sitting uninterrupted for too long," says Catherine. Modern life and all its distractions means we have almost forgotten the simple games of our own childhoods – tip the can, chasing, hide and seek – all of which involve far more movement than Xbox or Wii.

2. Leave the car at home – cycle or walk to school and anywhere else within reach.

Catherine says it is important to get away from the idea that physical activity only takes place in the gym or on the playing pitch.

"We need to approach physical activity from different perspectives," she says. For instance, if exercise is always confined to organised sport, there is often a lot of standing around while coaches demonstrate or offer training advice.

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3. Start young.

This tip comes from psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, who runs the Solamh clinic in Dublin. "There is no point in saying to your 14-year-old that they suddenly need to get off the couch," she says. "From the get go, parents need to be limiting screen time, that is so important."

Joanna reminds parents that physical activity does not just have a good impact on the child's body image.

She says there is a growing wealth of literature pointing to the positive mental health benefits of physical activity, both in terms of increased cognitive ability and also better self-esteem.

Catherine agrees that exercise not only helps prevent or treat a range of physical conditions but also helps to prevent depression, reduce anxiety and promote a positive self-image.

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4. Make it fun.

Joanna stresses that there is no point insisting that a reluctant pre-teen laces up his/her runners every Saturday and joins the local team event if they really don't want to do it. Offer them choices such as dance, yoga, Pilates or anything that reduces the amount of time they spend with a gadget in their hands, moving little more than their thumbs and forefingers.

5. Loosen the apron strings.

Catherine suggests that instead of stopping children from climbing trees, exploring or jumping on rocks, we should "give them the authority to make decisions around their own risk".

Modern parents are so worried about potential dangers that they may impose rules which are far more restrictive than the boundaries they faced when they were young. Learn to let go a little and trust your children to know how far to go.

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6. Reduce screen time.

Yes, we all know how convenient it can be to sit them down in front of the television or hand them a DS so we can enjoy a little peace and quiet, but Irish kids (or their parents) are over-dependent on electronic devices. Joanna says she frequently hears parents say that their children "only" watch three television shows. "Children's shows are at least 30 minutes long – that is a lot of time on screen."

7. Be spontaneous.

Joanna warns against excessively structured exercise routines as children tend to rebel against them. Instead, she says it is better to try and "catch them unaware".

Head out for a nature walk or get them dancing to a few tunes in the kitchen, she suggests. However, self-conscious teenagers might have some issues with this proposal.

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8. Do it yourself.

Children learn best by example and are far more likely to object to heading out the door to their next activity if the person barking the orders is sitting on the couch with a remote in their hand.

Dr Catherine Woods insists that in schools it is important that all the pupils get involved in any activity programmes.

She says teachers are great at coming up with innovative ways to get everyone moving such as skipathons or other charity events.

9. Be clever.

Catherine recommends encouraging older children to help younger ones to get more active. This has a two-fold effect as often it is teenagers who are more likely to give up sport or other activities and it gets them moving, too. "It gets them to re-evaluate what physical activity is about. It's not just about health but about collaboration and it teaches social and psychological skills as well."

10. Do it together.

We could all do with moving around more, not just the children. Just about everyone in the family would benefit from an evening game of rounders or a half-hour of 'kerbs'.

And your children will love spending some time with you, playing and talking instead of sitting mute around a flickering box.

Irish Independent

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