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Raising Kids to Love Exercise

Don’t force it. If you push your kid into a sport they really don’t want to do, it’s not going to stick. People (children included) feel motivated to do something when they have control, when they can feel like they’re a part of something, and when they can feel successful, said Matthew Myrvik, a clinical sports psychologist and an associate professor at The Medical College of Wisconsin. “Where you start is you give them control,” he said — which is to say, give them several different kinds of activities to choose from.

For a child who isn’t excited about team sports like soccer or basketball, you can offer skateboarding or yoga, which are physical activities that they can master on their own. “If you have a kid who is more cerebral or into science, taking a nature walk and identifying different plants or birds, or taking a bike ride through a beautiful setting,” can keep activity joyful, said Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian and host of the podcast “Food Psych.”

If you try to force particular activities on your kids, it may backfire, Ms. Harrison said. “A lot of adults who are healing from disordered relationships with their bodies were pushed into adult type activities that made them hate exercise; it made them feel like they were being punished,” she said.

Praise effort, not outcome. As children reach adolescence, they tend to drop out of sports entirely if they are not highly competitive, according to a 2019 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Teach your kids that especially in team sports, they cannot control the outcome of the game, Dr. Myrvik said. What they can control is how hard they try. After a game, whether your kid wins or loses, praise the process, saying something like: “I love how many shots you took today,” or “It’s great to see you out there having fun with your friends.”

Make it a family activity. Kids are smart, and they will notice the mirthless way that some adults view exercise — going out for a jog that feels like checking off a box or doing some mandatory drudgery, Ms. Harrison said.

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