Fit for Life: How to Encourage Lifelong Health in our Kids

As a new mom, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I will help encourage my young daughter to grow into a happy, healthy adult. Most parents share in this, so we’re all looking for ways to speak with our kids about health and nutrition to set them up for lifelong success (while also perhaps searching for ways to shelter them from less-than-healthy messages in mass media, so they can avoid body image issues and disordered eating). Although I would love to find an easy and universal answer to the question of how to talk to kids about health and motivate them to find healthy habits, it’s still a question that deserves some in-depth investigating and consideration. Plus, there’s no one right answer for every family — or even every child.

All that said, there’s one thing we know for sure: The example you set as a parent matters. A recent study revealed that mothers living a healthy lifestyle have healthier, fitter kids. Maybe it goes without saying, but making sure you incorporate healthy lifestyle choices and habits into your daily life, in full view of your kids, is one of the best ways to guide them into their own healthy living.

Of course, the physical and mental health of our children is one of our big responsibilities as parents, but it goes beyond what is happening at home. Our kids are sponges and are easily influenced by what they see and hear. While you can only maintain so much control over what they learn at school or what they see on television and the internet, cooking, cleaning and doing sports together as a family are easy things we can organize to promote healthy habits among our family that will have lasting impact for our kids, whether at home or away.

In my personal and professional opinion, the best gift we can offer our children is to get them moving regularly and eating healthy foods, but in case you feel you could use a little more guidance, read on for a deeper dive into some ways to maintain and improve the health of our children.

Lead by example

As noted above, research shows that our children are more inclined to eat veggies and play sports if we do too. The famous phrase, “do what I say, not what I do” never works anyways. Kids are smart, and they will follow the examples they see. As parents, we’re their role models, so the best way to motivate our kids to stay and be healthy is to show them the way.

I believe that, from a very young age, we can influence our kids’ perception of food and exercise. If we have fun while cooking and eating healthy foods, they will too. If we enjoy being active, there is a good chance they will enjoy it also.

Make cooking food and being active interactive activities for the whole family in ways that work for everyone — whether that’s competitive team sports, a relaxed game of catch, or a simple stroll through the neighborhood.

Learn and teach

One of the roles of a parent is, of course, to educate our children so that they are well-equipped to deal with all kinds of life situations. As parents, we want to be well informed and up-to-date about topics relevant to our health and that of our family.

Children are like us — when they understand why a behavior is beneficial or harmful, they are more inclined to make a good choice about that behavior. I also believe kids know way more than we think, so I aim to talk about the real things, with the right words, even if sometimes it sounds too “grown up.”

I encourage you to explain to your children why it’s essential to eat specific nutrients, why our bodies like sugar so much, why moving is a synonym of health, etc. Educating ourselves first before we tell our children is a great way to understand the reasons behind certain healthy behaviors, ensuring a healthy future for our family.

Spending time in the kitchen with our children is a great way to combine pleasure, good food, and education. Talking about nutrition in simple but adequate terms while baking healthy goodies is the perfect setting to teach our kids healthy behavior towards food.

couple and a baby cooking home

Accept yourself

This one is important for your health and wellness as much as it is for your kids: Love yourself. Love yourself with all your qualities and imperfections! Show your kids that even if you aren’t perfect (because no one is), you still enjoy being yourself and are proud of your body. This can help encourage self-acceptance among our children as well as promote own self-confidence.

If you’re not quite there yet, fake it til you make it! Do your best to, through your words and actions, own your weaknesses and celebrate your strengths. Be positive, and focus on what makes you satisfied and happy.

I believe that showing our kids that we love ourselves and that we are more than just a body or a number on the scale is crucial if we want them to be proud of who they are and happy with what they have.

Watch the words we use

As much as we don’t swear in front of children, we should also be careful with the way we speak about ourselves and others because it has a significant impact on how our kids perceive their own self. In fact, we get a lot of messages from young people under the age of 16, telling us, “I think I’m too fat,” or “My mom tells me I need to lose weight,” or “My relative calls me round”… and they’re desperately asking for help as a result of what they hear from others about their body.

Body image is easily distorted from other’s comments, judgments, and socially-promoted standards, so being more conscious about how we speak to our kids about weight and image is undoubtedly helpful in improving their self-esteem and the way they perceive their body.

Using words that are positive, original, inspiring, and tied to their accomplishments and character is an excellent way to make our children feel appreciated and loved just the way they are, while using words that focus only on body and appearance, even in compliments, can help reinforce the idea that worth is tied to weight or attractiveness.

Smart associations

The idea of associating positive feelings and thoughts with food and sports is fascinating. For example, if your kids bake muffins themselves, they’ll likely feel proud, and they take a step towards autonomy. On the other hand, it’s important not to perceive food (often sugar or processed junk) as a reward, because eating is a need, not just a want.

vegan banana muffin

For me, “Finish your plate, or you can’t have dessert,” is not a smart association. Instead of forcing our children to finish their plate (and possibly overeat) in addition to threatening them with no dessert, I suggest going the opposite way. I let them know that there will always be dessert available after supper, but that their sweet serving size will be proportionate to their main meal portion. If they ate half of the meat and veggies on their plate, they would have a smaller dessert serving. But if they ate all of their vegetables, then they can have a normal portion size (unless they share that they’re full from dinner).

The idea is the same with sports and exercises. Kids never have to exercise; they simply have to play! Associating fun and positive thoughts with time spent playing outside is a smart way to encourage active time over sedentary time.

Avoid stereotypes

It’s 2018 and yet “push-ups with knees on the floor” are taught as being “girls push-ups.” But why? Girls are just as capable of doing regular push-ups and, sometimes, guys have to start with their knees on the floor to build strength and learn proper push-up form.

We often don’t realize that we use social stereotypes when we talk with our children. On top of that, influences come from everywhere: school and daycare, family, friends, the Internet, media, TV, the list goes on… We can’t control the flood of information our kids receive, but we can encourage our kids to question social stereotypes and think critically. This will certainly help them realize that it doesn’t matter what other people think or say, what matters is how you feel inside and knowing who you really are.

Celebrate differences

Let’s step back from the appearance and body image. Instead, let’s celebrate uniqueness and promote self-acceptance. Explaining to our kids that no fingerprints are the same and that everybody on this planet is singular and different is an original way to help them have a positive perception of themselves.

Our children, like us, are influenced by what other people say or what society standards are. But, the information circulating about weight is often distorted. Despite what the media would have us believe, being big doesn’t mean you are unhealthy and being thin doesn’t mean you are healthy either. Telling our kids that no two bodies are the same and that it’s actually amazing to be unique is undoubtedly a smart way to help them keep a healthy mindset towards the way they look.

Find balance

Seeing our healthy-looking kids participating in regular physical activity and having good behaviors towards food is, of course, what we are trying to achieve as parents. But, life being what it is, it’s entirely normal to have ups and downs. So, the idea is to find balance in the normal imbalances of life!

From a professional view, I know that physical activity and nutrition play a big role in the healthy growth and development of children. For example, research has proven, that regular physical activity among children is associated with cardiovascular benefits and favorable changes in body composition. But it’s like everything else — balance is key. In fact, excessive physical activity during childhood and adolescence may negatively affect growth and development. It’s recommended to let our children play many different sports, not just one in particular.

It’s the same story with nutrition. Avoiding junk and “bad” food completely junks isn’t always the right way to stay healthy in the long-run. The important thing is that our children have healthy eating habits most of the time while learning to listen to their body’s hunger cues and making informed choices around food. This will allow them to enjoy the small pleasures of life and not feel deprived either.