How to Motivate Kids to Exercise
We all want to be healthier. It’s just that we make unhealthy choices sometimes. But we do it anyway.
The important thing, though, is we have the choice to make those decisions. Even when they can be bad.
When you’re a parent, mentor, or authority figure it gets a little more complicated. You have the power to choose – or at least strongly persuade – other people’s behavior.
This is where it can get complicated. When you have that person’s best interest at heart, you want them to do the right thing. But sometimes the method we use, isn’t the most effective. It’s also easier to dole out the advice, than to take it ourselves.
Exercise can be one of those activities. Everyone knows it’s healthy. But getting someone to increase their exercise levels – ourselves included – can be difficult.
Research from the University of Georgia is helping identify how to motivate kids to exercise. And also a sure fire way not to do it.
Rod Dishman is a professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia. He’s interested in how to motivate kids – who would otherwise not exercise – to get more physical activity:
“Just like there are kids who are drawn to music and art, there are kids who are drawn to physical activity. But what you want is to draw those kids who otherwise might not be drawn to an activity.”
A task that is not easy to do. Isn’t it hard enough to motivate ourselves to get up in the morning to exercise?
So the researchers had to find how students motivation was related to their actual physical activity. To do this, Rod and his team studied over 350 boys and girls from 6th and 7th grade. The students came from two South Carolina schools.
Measurements were taken for height, weight, and BMI. They were also required to fill out questionnaires about various types of motivation. They were then given accelerometers to wear during the week to objectively track their physical activity.
The full study can be found in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
This is a critical juncture in a young person’s life and important for development. It has been shown, and Rod echoes this point as well, that between 5th and 6th grades kids decrease physical activity by 50 percent.
The way not to do it?
Rod comments on their findings:
“Our results confirm that the beliefs these kids hold are related to physical activity levels. But can we put these children in situations where they come to value and enjoy the act of being physically active?”
The last thing parents and teachers want to do is create an atmosphere where kids feel guilty for not exercising. Their research was definitive on this point. Those kids that felt obligated to be more active, were less likely to be physically active.
It was intrinsic motivation that came up the winner. An environment where the students felt in control of their exercise decisions without pressure was key. If they felt more in control of their choices, they were more likely to see themselves as someone who exercises. That belief made it more likely for those kids to get moving.
So what advice can Rod offer to help motivate middle-schoolers?
“The best thing is to do it because it’s fun. It’s the kids who say they are intrinsically motivated who are more active than the kids who aren’t.”
I would say this is great advice for adults as well. However, changing how you view your exercise experience is easier said than done. The first step is really identifying those physical activities that you truly enjoy doing.
Rod and his team are looking how to integrate these types of activity into a normal day. Possibilities include structured games in school, expanding recreational clubs and opportunities, or incorporating some physical activity into classroom lessons.
Intrinsic motivation is powerful stuff. It’s one of the key factors in turning any activity into a habit or lifestyle. The more something is seen as a chore, the easier it’ll be to ignore. And the more likely it’ll be the first thing to put off on a list of priorities.