Exercise Is Medicine: But Not for Children

My brother, a very active, adventurous dad, concocts a unique obstacle course for each of his kids on their birthdays, so that “in order to turn 7,” for instance, the child has to “pass the 7-year-old test.” The kids train for it, and help design it, and love him — and themselves — for it.

This is a great example of how parents can affirm for children the joys of movement.

Parents should model enjoyable physical endeavors themselves, and invite their children on exciting family adventures involving hikes, bikes, boats, and myriad creative games and sports.

We’re in danger, however, of imposing on children a “move because it’s good for you” philosophy — which could be counter-productive.

It’s appropriate for adults: The American College of Sports Medicine’s “Exercise is Medicine” campaign calls on “all health care providers to assess and review every patient’s physical activity program at every visit.” Brilliant!

Of course exercise is essential to physical functioning; our very cells cannot live without it. The campaign is working, too. How I love it when my own physician asks me about exercise!

But… let’s not tell kids.

Have you ever met a child who likes medicine?

If we approach kids with an obesity-prevention, “you must move for 60 min per day” approach, excercise might become, in their minds, just another thing grownups want them to do, along with homework and housework.

Kids SHOULD be taught the benefits of exercise, along with the nutritional value of food, but let’s ALSO nurture their natural passion for movement, so that throughout their lives they stay in touch with their natural desire to play, explore, experiment, discover, test, and express themselves with their bodies.

When necessary (and if often is), we can offer children or adults appropriate incentives to overcome the inertia of  sedentary lifestyle. But eventually, the incentive becomes intrinsic: moving feels good, during and afterward – especially when it’s in the context of play.

Myriad studies confirm: the primary reason children play sports is this: FUN.

Therefore, to promote physical activity to children, we should not limit our discussion to physical health, mental health, or cognitive function.

What we should be promising is what Frank Forencich (of Exuberant Animal fame) calls “physical happiness” – and who doesn’t want that?

Of course, adults who are lifelong athletes don’t need to perceive exercise as medicine either. We’ve never forgotten how fun it is.

Off to train for my own upcoming (April) 55-year-old test!

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One Response to “Exercise Is Medicine: But Not for Children”

  1. Dr. Kwame M. Brown Says:

    Mariah, you know I completely agree. Instead of not being playful for fear we may not be taken seriously – we must continue to make the case for the seriousness of the consequences of lost playfulness. We must make the case for the seriousness and greater effect of the consequences of found playfulness. Then, and only then, will we accomplish the goals of health and efficacy we all agree on.


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