As I walked to my client at 6.30 in the morning I saw a family come past on roller blades, mum, dad and two children under 10 roller blading and being active before the day has barely got going…. what a wonderful sight!
I do not write too much about kids fitness. Every year I turn down a few enquiries to train youngsters whose parents want them to lose weight. I have trained many kids over the years around rugby fitness due to my first book on rugby and my rugby fitness website. This is simple to do, as it is a sport with clear needs to fulfil which can be actioned easily, e.g. do a sprint speed session a few weeks in a row.
When it comes to getting in shape it is much more complicated, as the Grand Unified Theory of Weight Loss discusses, there are many factors that influence your body weight. These are easily resolvable by taking certain specific actions. However, in the case of a youngster, these would need the parents to be on board as well. That aside, here are some thoughts about children’s health & fitness with practical suggestions at the end –
0 – 5 Year Olds – The fitness and weight of the child is entirely down to the parents as all the food and activities are set by them. The kids do not know any better, they are given their food, told what to do for activities and so forth.
One huge issue here to be aware of now is that the world has changed. For all of human history the advice as a parent would be to feed your child, it is seems inbuilt within us to try to give them food. However, your main aim as a parent now, is to stop them eating too much food while preventing them learning habits that means they will eat too much in the future. Food is now everywhere and we are eating all the time.
When I was living in Brazil I was dating a girl who had a two & half year old, we would be playing in the sand on the beach and the kid didn’t have a thought in the world about food (as had already eaten enough). Mum would then come along and feed her for no reason, this is not a good idea this day and age. I always see parents giving their children things to eat when they are not even close to being hungry or thinking about food.
With fitness, young kids are high energy and too wild to do much structured exercise so to speak, under 5’s rugby training was anarchy 🙂 This means all the activity they will do comes down to how much you as a parent will take them to do stuff. Usually, the parent will get bored or tired of running around, visiting the play park or being on the scooter way before they do. The more they move in fun ways the better.
5 – 10 Year Olds – The fitness environment of the house is the most important thing at this stage. They are more independent and much of the learning a child does at this stage is through the environment they grow up in. As I saw in the park the other day, that family is already teaching activity in a great way. Children learn so much from what is seen and done rather than what you say. Children are copying their parents on all fronts and this is the key stage. If you look at the data, the obesity rate in children doubles from 5 to 10 years old where it remains fairly consistent until 16 onwards. (Source – UK Obesity Data 2023) –
4-5 yr olds – 22% Overweight (10% Obese)
11-15 yr olds – 37% Overweight (23% Obese)
This is where difficulty arises, because the teaching is now simply your life as a parent, it is very hard to teach things you are not doing. It is hard to not transfer your own beliefs onto them. This is fine if you are successful in that particular area, not so good if you struggle. I was dating another Brazilian girl here in London whose kid did not like exercise at all. Yet, when he saw me running sprints he started joining in and began to enjoy it. Your environment sets the tone, your environment is how you and others act. This is why I do not train children for fat loss, I need the parents to learn first.
11 – 18 Year Olds – The biggest influence on your teenagers is their social and societal group. While parents still have a big influence you are not the primary factor that dictates how their health & fitness goes. This means you need to be more careful with your strategy. The goal should be to give them a lifelong enjoyment of exercise and sensible eating habits. Very often, organised sport is counter to this goal. There is a difference between exercise for fun verses sport for competition, e.g. park run vs athletics). The latter puts more people off exercise than it encourages in my experience. Unless you are really good at it, but even then, the dropout rate of girls in sport after 16 is shockingly high, even for talented athletes. With food, this is where much of the disordered eating patterns begin. It is difficult for you as a parent because much is built on the foundation of their formative years and then you are against other people at school and a wealth of conflicting information on the internet. On the positive side, they are old enough to really engage in any process around change and developing new habits should they wish to.
What Does This Means For You?
I think it is important to remove judgement when talking about children’s health & fitness, both of oneself or of others. Society is now set up so that we barely move and have access to way too much food. It is no surprise anyone struggles with that, let alone parents trying to help their kids. For me the best thing you can ever do is develop your own skills and abilities. It is then much easier to teach something you truly know.
As I have written here many times, everyone should be doing these behaviours to optimise their health and fitness because you feel happier, get more done and have an easier life than the person who does not do those tasks. It will make you a better parent and role model for others around you.
At a practical level if you are a parent, then you could start doing any of these –
-Eat / give food only when they are hungry.
-Discourage children from finishing their plate (save the food for another time)
-Learn to be ok with a little hunger / waiting to eat a meal.
-Listen to the body after eating (how long until they are next hungry, energy, bloating etc)
-Try to find exercise/activity that is fun (try new things)
-Point out they feel better after exercise
-Do not link exercise to winning/competing with others (focus on getting better for fun)
-Do exercise/activities together with your child.
-Teach them cooking skills
-Look at nutrient content of foods (vitamins & minerals)
-Do fun taste challenges, e.g. eating and rating the taste of different apples.
Photo – A photo of me in my primary school days –