Getting Kids & Adolescents Excited About Exercise
Children are not simply small adults when it comes to getting and staying fit; they present their own unique challenges in terms of exercise motivation and adherence.
By Randi Rotwein-Pivnick, MA, MFT
It seems that every time you turn on the news these days, someone is proclaiming the benefits of participating in a regular exercise program. We've been told that engaging in even minimal amounts of regular exercise can decrease the risk of stroke and heart attack; lower blood pressure and cholesterol; increase muscle mass; deplete body fat; improve strength, endurance, flexibility, mental outlook, self-image and self-confidence; and generally enhance the quality of life.
February 2006 IDEA Fitness Journal
Adults can absorb this information and appreciate the benefits of lowering their future health risks, increasing their longevity and enhancing their ability to keep performing the regular activities of daily living. With time and functioning taking on new importance with age, they may be more motivated to exercise on a regular basis, even if they hate every hard-earned moment spent working out! Unfortunately, most children and adolescents are not mature enough to understand the health benefits of a regular exercise program. First of all, they haven't lived long enough to experience the "ills" of failing health. And youth being wasted on the young, they are not apt to recognize their own mortality, which seems very far off in the future. Yet, engaging in physical activity and understanding its worth at an early age offer many immediate benefits: development of motor skills needed for enjoyable participation in physical activities; appreciation of physical fitness; increased energy expenditure; and promotion of a positive attitude toward an active lifestyle. There is even evidence that being physically active during youth may enhance a child's academic performance, self-concept and mental health (Babey et al. 2005).
If children perceive exercise as "work" or as a source of pain, they will do whatever they can to avoid it and will likely carry this negative attitude about physical activity into their adult lives.
of Trim KidsTM: The Proven 12-Week Plan That Has Helped Thousands of Children Achieve a Healthier Weight, when children are left to their own devices, "most would prefer to burn calories outside playing tag, swinging, chasing balls or throwing themselves into a pile of fallen leaves" (Sothern et al. 2001). In short, kids are more likely to engage in regular physical activity when it is fun, comfortable, convenient and intrinsically rewarding. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside oneself; enjoying the feeling of becoming stronger, or just plain feeling good, is an intrinsic motivator. Extrinsic motivation typically stems from an outside force; verbal praise or rewards are common external motivators. As a rule, children tend to be motivated more by intrinsic forces, whereas adolescents are usually more influenced by extrinsic factors. "Children are born with a natural curiosity, a love of playtime, a will to overcome small challenges and a pride in mastery," says Michelle May, MD, co-author of H Is for Healthy: Weight Management for Kids. "They are frustrated by boring, regimented, uncomfortable or overwhelming tasks. The more closely `exercise' meets these innate tendencies, the more easily [children] are
Fitness professionals have the power and ability to steer children and adolescents toward the road to wellness. But to be successful at instilling motivation and adherence in your young charges, you need to understand what makes them tick so you can guide them in a positive, helpful and constructive fashion. Here are some real-world motivation strategies to employ on your future athletes, recreational exercisers and fitness enthusiasts.
Stages of Development
When it comes to exercise, the basic manner in which human beings are motivated is determined by their current developmental stage. A child will respond to certain stimuli and encouragement differently than a teenager who is more emotionally developed. Conversely, what inspires an adolescent will have little influence on a much younger child. That's why it is important to be cognizant of, and to familiarize yourself with, the psychological factors that motivate each age group to begin and adhere to a regular exercise program. This knowledge will allow you to incorporate age-appropriate motivation strategies into your training repertoire. Having these tools at your disposal will increase your chances of captivating your young audience and will keep them coming back for more.
Kids Just Want to Have Fun
When it comes to motivating the younger set, it's all about fun. Make a physical activity fun and appealing, and most children up to age 11 or 12 will engage in it every opportunity they get. However, present them with an activity they deem "boring" or "too hard,"and they will avoid it like the plague. According to the authors
motivated to engage in the activity. Unfortunately in our society, physical activity is no longer a convenient, natural or necessary part of our day-to-day existence. Bike riding, sports and active play have to compete with television, computers and video games, which easily meet young people's need for adventure, play and even mastery" (May & Cosby 2005). In my own career working with children as both a personal fitness trainer and a psychotherapist, I have found that the key to success is to focus on the fun factor. If children perceive exercise as "work" or as a source of pain, they will do whatever they can to avoid it and will likely carry this negative attitude about physical activity into their adult lives. Plus, their boredom will make you have to work harder as a trainer to keep them engaged when their minds are wandering and disinterested. I remember an experience I had with an 11-year-old boy who was clinically obese. The last thing he wanted to do was exercise (his parents had bribed him into attending training sessions)-- especially not with some old lady like me! Admittedly it took me several sessions of trial and error to figure out what would hold this young boy's attention and keep him moving his body. (Early on, I discovered that my traditional adult workouts were never going to work with this client.) After many awkward conversations and much exploration (and a little bit of frustration on both sides), I discovered that he loved basketball and any kind of contest of skills (e.g., how far he could shoot a basketball into the hoop, how many sit-ups he could perform in 1 minute, etc.). In time, I became very creative designing exercises and activities that honed his basketball skills and could be presented as new "contests." Although this certainly was not your typical weight train-
February 2006 IDEA Fitness Journal
ing or cardiovascular training program, it worked because it got this boy to move his body and simultaneously kept him engaged and wanting more. Furthermore, because he was having fun doing the exercises, he continued to do them throughout the week even when he was not meeting with me, thus fulfilling the ultimate goal of exercise adherence and self-motivation. Another factor that is vital in instilling exercise motivation and adherence in clients of all ages is to create a program that allows the clients to experience some form of success every time. Numerous studies over the years have shown that perceived competence in an activity is a major psychological mediator (Douthitt 1994; Ntoumanis 2001). Part of your job when training kids is to create fitness programs that instill and reinforce the belief that the youngsters are capable of performing an activity (even if they've never tried it before). Your programs also need to provide these clients some measure of success, regardless of the level of competency they display. For example, using positive verbal cues during a new activity is a good motivating tool and can positively change a child's perspective of the experience.
What Motivates Kids?
Motivation is a critical factor for getting and keeping kids moving. Here are some strategies to increase exercise motivation and adherence in a young charge:
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