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David Coleman: 'Ten ways to get your children more physically active'



Deliberately focusing on the fun it can provide is a central element of encouraging our children to exercise. Photo: Stock photo

Deliberately focusing on the fun it can provide is a central element of encouraging our children to exercise. Photo: Stock photo


A "couch potato" is the very antithesis of the sporty, active, child. With our own children, the danger is not that they'll be stuck on the sofa in front of the TV, but that they'll be lounging anywhere in the house with some other screen or electronic device.

Estimates suggest that here in Ireland, only about one in five boys, and about one in eight girls are doing the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every day.

In addition, recent US research published in The Lancet, showed that children (they had a sample of 4,500 8-11 year olds) are spending an average of three and a half hours a day on recreational screen time. Children in this study who spent more time being active (achieving the minimum 60 minutes per day) did better on a range of tests of cognitive function (like language, memory and so on).

The WHO is clear that exercise provides four essential benefits for children. It helps with their bone and skeletal development. It improves their heart and lung health. It helps them to develop coordination and an awareness of movement. Finally, it helps them to maintain a healthy body weight.

I'd also add that exercise and physical activity is fun for children. Indeed, deliberately focusing on the fun it can provide is a central element of encouraging our children to exercise.

1 Do some planning and preparation

The way modern life is, most families already seem to have pretty hectic schedules. So, putting a bit of thought into what our children might do, when they might do it, and where will they be able to do it, means that our aspirations for our children's activity levels might actually be realised. Think practical preparation too. Make sure to have a good set of waterproofs and wellies for everyone so that rain doesn't stop play.

2 Think activity not just sport

Sometimes we only think about children's physical activity in terms of what sports they might do. Sport is good, but it isn't the only way that we can get children active. For example, getting them to do some of the physically demanding chores might be one hidden way to get them moving. Vacuuming, washing the car, cutting the grass, cleaning windows or sweeping up leaves will all require them to move.

3 Do a little and often

Trying to achieve an hour a day of activity in a single go might be unrealistic. So, break things down to five, 10 or 15 minute bursts, several times a day.

4 Role model being active

When we show an interest and engagement in being active ourselves, it will positively influence our children. We don't need to go to heroic lengths, like running a marathon, or completing a triathlon (although you could!), but even simply choosing to use the stairs when you are going to and from your car in a multi-storey car park, will underline your belief that exercise is a good thing. Bringing the dog for a walk every evening, or choosing to walk to the shop, rather than drive, are simple ways we can show our commitment.

5 Play with your children

Especially when your children are younger, it will be more fun for them when you get involved in their play. You may remember particular games you played while skipping, or maybe something like hopscotch. Or maybe you played "kerbies", a game of skill that invariably leads to much chasing around after errant throws. Children love when we are taking part.

6 Think about school transport

Could walking or cycling be incorporated into your child's school commute? Even if they can't walk or cycle all the way, could you park further from the bus, or the train, or the school gates, so that they have to walk at least part of the way?

7 Join sports clubs

The range of different activities for children is broad and varied. If GAA, soccer or rugby don't appeal, what about basketball, hockey, martial arts, sailing, athletics, swimming, horse riding, archery or cycling. Don't assume they'll love the sports you did as a child - think creatively if the initial options don't appeal.

8 Reduce screen time

The less time in front of a screen, the more time they have to be active.

9 Involve their friends

Playing with others can be more fun than playing alone. So, for example, offering to bring a friend to the pool might make it a more attractive outing than going by themselves or with you. Take advantage of positive peer pressure, if their friends play sports, encourage your own child to join in.

10 Set goals or challenges for your child or family

If your family loves its electronics then there are lots of activity trackers you might use to set individual, or family, targets for certain kinds of movements. For example, I've worked out that it is about 850,000 steps to get from Malin Head to Mizen Head. How long would it take your family to clock that up? If you have an upstairs in your house, how many times would you have to climb the stairs, to climb the equivalent of Carrauntoohil? Or maybe your family might want to actually climb Carrauntoohil. When it comes to activity challenges, your imagination might be the only limiting factor. So you've no excuse; get moving for 2019!

Health & Living