Encouraging Children to Become More Active

Over the last 30 years the number of children struggling with obesity has doubled and it continues to steadily rise. It is a growing concern for the population as a whole that a generation of overweight children is being raised and action needs to be taken sooner rather than later. Following a significant amount of research into the epidemic, a number of factors have been identified as reasons for our growing young adults including inactivity in kids, inactivity in adults, processed foods, the affordability of bad foods, the loss of the family dinner table, two working parents, increased popularity of computers, reliance on prepared meals, the list goes on; but fundamentally and at its most basic, the causes of obesity relates to an imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure.

So what can we do to address this imbalance? What’s the impact on the future life of an overweight child? How can we tackle a child’s weight problem? Should children be encouraged to see Personal Trainers? What are the implications of Personal Trainers working with children? Dan Fivey,  Personal Trainer and Owner of The Gym, gives us his thoughts on the subject.

Weight management in children is something that I am becoming increasingly aware of. I was initially approached by a couple of parents about seeing their children once a week to encourage them to be more active and I noticed that it is a growing concern among many parents and an area that my Personal Training expertise can be applied. I love helping people to reach their full potential and the idea of inspiring and motivating children to live a happier, healthier lifestyle really appeals to me.

Recent studies show that children are getting significantly less exercise than the recommended amount of 1 hour per day and along with the rise of consuming empty calories it’s no wonder children are getting heavier. As well as the effect that this has on children when they are young it is widely known that their habits are developed at a young age and are often continue into adulthood, which is a worry for the adult population of tomorrow, as well as the NHS that will need to support them. It is also concerning that although obesity can be tackled through increased exercise and better diet, for those who are already obese the health consequences are severe. On average, being obese at a young age can decrease life expectancy by nearly 10 years and worryingly parents could soon outlive their children.

As well as a rather frightening decreased life expectancy, obesity in children can also have short term effects including being at an increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease and being at a greater risk for joint and bone problems, sleep apnea and psychological issues. The long term health effects of obesity in children include Type II Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis and an increase for cancer including cervical, kidney, pancreas, colon, breast, gallbladder and prostate cancer.

Research also shows that children who are a healthy weight tend to be fitter, healthier, more able to learn, more self-confident and have higher self-esteem; so it’s no wonder that the parents I encounter in my gym are really keen to get their children involved in a more active lifestyle.

To begin with I was conscious of being extremely sensitive when talking to parents about their children’s weight issue – it’s a highly emotive subject and it’s very important to me that I didn’t cause any offence. However, it was quickly obvious that as they were approaching me to talk about it they have generally got to a point where they are worried and so are keen to soak up all of the advice I could give. I also feel that it is essential to make them realise the importance of leading by example, a lot of this inactive lifestyle and unhealthy eating is a learned, ‘copycat’ behaviour from parents and so it is essential that they become healthy role models. Suggesting they try to all eat together as a family, take part in outdoor activities or even just a kick around in the park at the weekend can all be a good place to start.

There are numerous things to think about when opening your doors to children as a Personal Trainer and none more important than making sure that the way you speak to the children encourages them and boosts their confidence. As well as offering one-to-one personal training for children from the age of 6, I also run a children’s exercise class on a Saturday morning and one of the issues that I was cautious of when tackling a child’s weight issue is how to talk about it with them without highlighting it too much and further adding to potential body issues. What I have found is that it is very similar to dealing with an adult with the same issues, you have to be very aware of the types of words you are using (not ‘fat’, or ‘thin’ more healthy’ and ‘fitter’), encourage them by explaining how much fitter they were than before and how they are improving, and constantly offering them gentle encouragement whilst being motivational.

Kids obviously don’t think of exercise as exercise as long as you are making it fun. I truly believe that the best way to get children exercising is by focussing on fun, fun and more fun! If you can make activities as interesting as possible whilst getting them more active, they will naturally want to take part. I try to make them laugh as much as I can at the beginning of the class so that they can start to feel as relaxed as possible and break down any inhibitions that may initially be there, I then set up some games for them to play such as games that involve running around cones, using ladders and hurdles is also a favourite, as well as a good old game of catch or heading the ball. I also find it useful to set children small goals during their exercise as they respond really well to having something to aim for. It’s also another great opportunity to pile on the encouragement and let them know how well they are doing. As well as the obvious exercise that my classes provide it’s also great for improving children’s hand-eye co-ordination, getting used to working as a team and for exploring elements of sport that they otherwise wouldn’t have got to experience.

All of these types of games and methods of exercising aren’t new and they aren’t bucking a trend, they’re things that parents can do with their children but unfortunately in this day and age parents just aren’t finding the time to slot these activities into their working week. A number of children who I see on a Saturday morning attend my class whilst their parents use the gym and they see it as a great way of making sure they’re finding time to do their own exercise whilst their children are benefiting too. As a Dad myself I am extremely aware of these time pressures and I know that parents just want to do the best for their children.

In the same way that adults have to address their diet alongside their fitness, it is also important that parents look at a more holistic approach to a healthier lifestyle for their children and make improvements to their eating regime. Alongside exercise plans and ideas, I also offer tips on diet changes that can be incorporated into their lifestyle and as a healthy vegan myself, I feel that I am well placed to suggest better, healthier alternatives to many of the processed or fatty foods they are consuming. In addition to this I always provide a free piece of fruit at the end of my exercise class and personal training sessions and encourage all of the children to eat it – I quite often find that as long as one child eats some then the rest will join in!

It’s really important to encourage children to be more active, far too many are spending too long in front of the TV or on computers and we need to get them moving. As well as a healthier lifestyle, it’s crucial that we encourage children to play with other children to develop social skills that can’t be achieved from computer games and experience elements of sport that may spark an interest and provide them with a hobby that they can continue throughout their lives. As well as the huge rewards that training children can bring, as a Personal Trainer, it’s also important to remember that these children are potentially our customers of the future. Children’s exercise is a growing market and could potentially be a significant revenue stream if handled in the correct way.

Top tips for Personal Trainers when working with kids:

• Make exercise fun – children respond much better to fun activities and it’s more likely that they will stick at it if it is a fun thing to do. They don’t realise that playing fun, active games is actually exercise.

• Think before you speak – It goes without saying that it’s hugely important to ensure that we don’t further add to a child’s potential body image issue by using the wrong language. Using words such as ‘healthier’ and ‘fitter’ is better than ‘fat’ and ‘thin’.

• Offer encouragement – children struggling with their weight may have low self-esteem and not a lot of self-confidence. Giving them plenty of encouragement can help that and give them more motivation.

• Set small, achievable goals – children enjoy having something to aim for and once they reach their goals it gives another opportunity to pile on the praise and give more encouragement!

• Obesity in children can have the following short term effects: an increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease and a greater risk for joint and bone problems, sleep apnea and psychological issues.

• Long term health effects of obesity in children include: Type II Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis and an increase for cancer including cervical, kidney, pancreas, colon, breast, gallbladder and prostate cancer.

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By: Dan Fivey
Dan Fivey has trained celebrities, athletes, and elderly and disabled people. He has worked in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and the UK helping people build strength, posture and stability, enabling people to overcome the physical demands of everyday life. Services available at The Gym Cheltenham in Cheltenham include injury rehab, personal training programmes and sessions, boxing lessons, core and pre/post natal exercises, kids’ activities, running, TRX and SAQ sessions, vibration massage and circuit training. He is a father of two children: Sam (11) and Daisy (3). They enjoy swimming and climbing with him and making sock puppets... Dan also owns Not Just Juice: a healthy cafe and juice bar. It has options for veggies, vegans and gluten free diets.

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