From the Heart and Stroke Foundation

By the time your child hits the preteen years, they may tend to slack off when it comes to regular physical activity. By creating a plan now, you may help your child develop lifelong habits before high school.

In the awkward phase between childhood and adolescence, preteens need guidance from their parents to develop the foundation for a healthy, active lifestyle. There are countless ways for preteens to get active, but busy schedules, social responsibilities and distractions such as television, videogames and computers can make it difficult for older kids to find time for physical activity. Preteens who are loaded with homework, studying and volunteering need to have time to relax and unwind, but when video games occupy most of their downtime, it can be a problem. “There's a lot of pressure for students to focus on academics in school and not physical activity,” says Dr. John Dwyer, physical activity expert and Heart and Stroke Foundation funded researcher. “They are missing out on learning the value of a physically active lifestyle. And they may be developing unhealthy habits at the same time.” The Heart and Stroke Foundation encourages kids to be active 60 to 90 minutes a day for healthy hearts.

Make a fitness contrat with your pre-teen

Creating a fitness contract or physical activity plan may guide preteens and their parents to find time to schedule in sports or other enjoyable activities, lay out physical activity expectations as well as help parents understand their responsibility to provide the opportunity for that activity. This is especially important now because many high schools don't require students to attend any physical education classes after grade 10.

Plan for appealing activity
It's a good idea to start by having your preteen write out a list of activities he or she enjoys or would like to try, says Dr. Dwyer. This may include sports, adventurous group outings such as laser tag and paint ball, or free-play such as bike-riding, swimming and playing Frisbee. “I think it's healthier to try a variety of things and see which ones your child enjoys and would be likely to continue with,” he adds. Also, have your child mark off any days when after-school activities or other responsibility may make it difficult to be active.

Determine expectations and availability on both sides
As a parent, it's a good idea to start writing your own list of what your expectations are: how often you'd like your son or daughter to be active, how long you'd like the activity to last, and how you can support your preteen. “We know parents don't have a lot of time, but, recognizing that physical activity is a priority for their children, they can make it a priority in their busy schedules,” Dr. Dwyer says. “Parents can provide opportunities for physical activity by buying a bike, taking the family to a park or freeing up time for a recreation program.”

When you are planning out your own responsibilities, determine how much money you can budget to sports or fitness classes for your child. When budgets are planned out ahead of time, it can be easier to negotiate alternatives with your son or daughter or make plans to buy used sports equipment that you may not otherwise be able to afford.

Lead by example
Agreeing to spend a certain amount of time being active yourself can help your children see that activity is something that really matters to you, and not just something that you are preaching to them about. Depending on your child's age, that may involve agreeing to spend one or two days a week participating in an activity alongside them, such as playing a sport or riding bikes together. Older teens may not be as eager to hang around with their parents in a social setting, but they may still be open to the idea of active family excursions (as long as none of their friends will see them). Regardless, Dr. Dwyer says that it's important for kids to see their parents being active. “Research shows that when parents set an example by living an active lifestyle, their kids are more likely to be active, too,” he adds.

Create a plan together
Get together with son or daughter and then negotiate what is reasonable to both parties. Remember that you also have a contract to stick to, and that may involve agreeing to provide transportation to sports games, the community centre, a pool or other facility. Also, incorporate any rules you have on limiting television, video game or other sedentary time.

Here's a sample fitness contract:

  • Preteen portion I agree to be physically active three times a week for 30 minutes or more. I also agree to limit the amount of time I spend doing inactive things such as watching TV, a video or DVD, using the computer for fun and playing video games. I will engage in these activities for a maximum of one hour on school days and a maximum of four hours over the weekend.

  • Parent portion I will support my child's efforts to be physically active three times a week. When needed, I will provide transportation to the swimming pool, park or other recreational facility for my child and up to two friends. For agreed-upon activities, I'll pay for the necessary equipment (clothes, shoes and protective gear). To manage TV time, I'll develop a schedule with my daughter or son to determine how to spend that time. I also commit to being active myself to show I am a good role model.

Be flexible
Sometimes, even the most carefully contracted plans can get thrown off course. Although it is good to have rules in place, flexibility is important from both the preteen and the parent. For instance, if martial arts courses are too expensive, can your preteen take kickboxing or other fitness classes at the community centre instead? Or if there's a major exam or a busy work schedule getting in the way of your preteen's activity plans for the week, can you schedule some extra active time for the weekend? If a sport or activity isn't working out for your child, can you try something else instead? “The physical activity contract should never feel like a punishment,” Dr. Dwyer says. “Kids this age want to be independent, but they still need structure. You can show that you value the contract, but that you are also willing to renegotiate in order to make sure that both sides are happy.”

Posted: November 1, 2007

Heart and Stroke Foundation


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