How to talk with your kids about exercise

No matter how early I rise with the intention of getting my workout done before my children wake up, I’m rarely able to do it alone. Most days my 3-year-old daughter climbs out of bed and comes straight down to our home gym and watches me do my workout.

Often times she’ll sit quietly in the corner, but sometimes she’ll join in and follow the trainer on my workout DVD and try a few of the moves. She’ll grab the pink 2-pound dumbbells I bought her (because she wanted her own pair of dumbbells) and try out a bicep curl or two.

Or sometimes she’ll unroll her purple yoga mat and hold downward dog with me. “Look at me, Mommy!” she’ll say with a big proud smile. She enjoys the ritual of activity in the morning and so do I. When one of the exercise videos is done, she’ll ask if I’m going to do another one. Sometimes she’ll ask, “Mommy, why do you exercise?”

I’m always conscientious about what I say and that I am sending her a positive message when I answer that question. I tell her I work out because it makes me feel happy, energetic and strong and that it’ll help me live a long life. I tell her it’s fun and that I enjoy it.

I never talk about being overweight or fat or needing to lose weight. I never say that I don’t like my body or the way I look. I don’t want her to hear me say negative things about my body. Nor do I want to send the message that we should not love our bodies or that exercise is punishment and is only done to change the way we look. Furthermore, if she heard me speak negatively about myself, she might wonder if there is something wrong with her own body and start to speak negatively about it.

I also avoid complaining about how hard the workouts are or talking about fitness as a struggle, because I don’t want her to think that being fit is something that adults struggle with. Instead, I tell her it feels good to challenge my body and to push myself to always be stronger and faster. I tell her that it’s good for my heart and keeps my body healthy and feeling good.

And when I prepare meals, I never tell my children that I am on a diet. Instead, I talk about healthy nutrition and how fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins help us feel good and nourish our body with lots of vitamins and healthy nutrients. I tell them that healthy nutrition will help them grow taller and be stronger. I talk about food as fuel and energy for our bodies, and I avoid offering food as comfort or a reward.

I get my kids involved in the kitchen whenever possible washing fruit in the sink or using cookie cutters to make shapes out of bread (which we often use to make French toast). As we make shapes out of fruits and vegetables, my children learn that eating healthy is fun while creating a positive association with healthy ingredients. They also see my husband and me eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and as a result, eat a lot themselves.

I want my children to know that exercise and healthy nutrition is to be done for a lifetime and that we do it because it makes us feel good and happy. I also want them to know that my self-worth isn’t connected to how I look or the shape of my body. It’s about who I am on the inside. And the same goes for them.

I hear of children as young as 5 years old talking about how they are fat or don’t like their bodies. Negative body image can start at a really young age. And it may stem in part from the messages that we send our kids or sometimes inadvertently from an adult conversation they might overhear.

To avoid sending the wrong messages to our kids, we must first change ourselves and our own reasons for exercise and healthy nutrition. When we exercise for reasons besides changing how we look, then we can share those reasons with our kids.

So, tell your children how exercise makes you feel happy and energetic and that it helps you to live a longer life. Tell them how it helps you get more done throughout the day and that you are more focused at work. Tell them how you have a dream to run a marathon or climb Mount Everest one day. Tell them that you are competing with yourself to be better, faster and stronger so that you can achieve that dream.

When you have the right reasons for exercising that are focused on effort and not the final result, then when your kids ask about your fitness journey or hear you talking about it with your friends they will know how wonderful exercise makes you feel. And you will have sent them a very positive message about leading a healthy lifestyle for a lifetime.

Archana Reddy is an emergency physician and can be reached on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @mightymommd.

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