By Master Trainer Jessica Bacon, M.Ed., M.S., BCBA
Many people have kids who simply cannot wait to get outside and run around. This can be especially noticeable during these beautiful early spring days. But some of us, myself included, have found that our young family members are not interested in disengaging with their screens, friend chats, and even the sofa. If you have a teen or a pre-teen at home right now, you might have an especially good idea of what I’m talking about. It can be a very difficult feat to keep your kids physically active right now.
How can you keep your kids physically active?
Reasons to Increase Physical Activity Levels
There are many reasons why we might want to consider monitoring and increasing the amount of physical activity that kids are engaging in each day. This is especially important during this time of isolation and disrupted routines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity (MVPA) produces many benefits. These benefits include improved thinking or cognition, learning and judgement skills, as well as a reduction in anxiety and depression. The recommendation is that children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 should engage in 60 minutes or more of MVPA each day.
Benefits of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity include improved thinking or cognition, learning and judgement skills, as well as a reduction in anxiety and depression.
Activities should include a balance between movement that strengthens bone. These activities include running, jumping, and movement that builds muscle, like climbing or doing push-ups. Additionally, at least 3 days should include exercise that would be considered aerobic. Aerobic exercises include any activity that makes the heart beat faster (CDC, 2018). A brisk walk would certainly meet the criteria for aerobic activity.
Currently, many of the typical opportunities for our kids to participate in physical activity are not available. Team sports and other extracurricular activities, play time with peers, and physical education classes have all been paused during this stay-at-home period. Fewer opportunities to be active require that we get a little creative with our kids and encourage them to engage in daily exercise.
Here are some tips which may be helpful in getting the younger members of your household a little bit more active. Keep in mind that 60 minutes a day may be too high of an expectation for your child to start off with. Consider your child or teenager’s current activity level and try to gradually increase it by small increments over time.
Exergaming is what you get when you combine video games with exercising. They are usually played on consoles like Nintendo, Xbox, and Playstation.
The aim of these games is to move your body. Players cannot progress or win without being physically active. Exergames have been shown to effectively increase physical activity levels among both children and adults (Hansen & Sanders, 2007).
A small study conducted in a public elementary school showed that children spent more time engaged in physical activity in an exergaming environment then they did during a traditional physical education class (Fogel et al, 2010). These types of games are easy to acquire and range in price. People are often selling used consoles and games on social media platforms and online market places.
Set Goals for Physical Activity
Setting a reasonable and measurable goal for your child to achieve can help to increase any behavior, including physical activity. Miller et al. (2018) investigated several different interventions to increase physical activity among 10 and 11-year-old students. This study showed that providing students with goals (e.g. total number of steps in a given period), increased activity levels more than other interventions such as providing feedback and posting results.
To set goals for your child, begin by observing the duration of their current physical activity levels across several days. You could do this throughout the day or during specific times of the day, as your schedule permits. Tracking number of steps either with a simple pedometer or an accelerometer device (e.g. Fitbit™) could also serve as a measure of physical activity. Once you have an average measure of your child’s current activity levels, set an initial goal equal to that average. As your child meets these goals, gradually increase them over time, in order to achieve the recommended 60 minutes per day.
Incentivize Physical Activity
Miller et al. (2018) found that adding rewards for achieving goals resulted in even higher levels of physical activity. Students who met their goals received a raffle ticket following each session in which they met or exceeded their step goal.
For my pre-teen at home, I created our own version of a raffle ticket system. This “raffle” consists of a box of tickets. Each ticket has a reward or “value” written on it. We came up with the list of rewards together, using our own version of a preference assessment, and wrote them out on the tickets as a family activity.
Examples of Potential Rewards for Physical Activity
- variable monetary values (similar to the amount a child might get for an “allowance”)
- staying up late
- highly preferred meal or dessert
- “get out of chores” passes
- special activities with parents
- surprise gifts: books, small toys, etc.
Each time our child meets a goal, about once every two or three days, she takes a ticket from the box. She never knows which reward she is going to “win.” Doing this keeps the system both interesting and effective.
The simplest and most effective way to increase your child’s physical activity levels may be to simply join in on the activity. Another way would be to interact with them while they are engaged in the physical activity. A study conducted at a California public school compared students’ activity levels across three different interventions.
These interventions are:
- Games to see who achieved the highest number of steps
- Reward systems
- Adult interaction dependent on the engagement of physical activity
All three interventions were effective in increasing number of steps. However, the highest levels of activity were actually observed when adults interacted and joined in the games with the students during activity. This finding reveals that good, old-fashioned spending time with your kids may still be the best way to achieve good habits and positive behaviors (Nieto & Wiskow, 2020).
Of course, the CDC also has similar activity recommendations for adults. Increasing physical activity could certainly benefit all household members. Try some of these options above: exergaming, setting goals, incentivizing, and joining your family members in some physical activity. You may discover numerous positive benefits for the whole family!
For more help with parenting during a pandemic, read How to Work From Home With Kids: Learning, Leisure, and Love in the time of Coronavirus.
Fogel, V. A., Miltenberger, R. G., Graves, R., & Koehler, S. ( 2010). The effects of exergaming on physical activity among inactive children in a physical education classroom. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43, 591– 600.
Hansen, L., & Sanders, S. (2007). Interactive gaming: Changing the face of fitness. Florida Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Dance & Sport Journal, 46, 38– 41.
Miller BG, Valbuena DA, Zerger HM, Miltenberger RG. Evaluating public posting,
Miller, B.G., Valbuena, D.A., Zerger,H.M., Miltenberger, R.G. (2018). Evaluating public posting, goal setting, and rewards to increase physical activity during school recess. Behavioral Intervention, 33, 237-250. https://doi.org/10.1002/bin.1631
Nieto, P. and Wiskow, K. (2020) Evaluating adult interaction during the Step It UP! game to increase physical activity in children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 00, 1-13.