Sara Hall, one of America’s premier distance runners, the 2012 US National Cross Country Champion and a Gold Medalist at the Pan American Games in the steeplechase, and who has also represented the US at three World Indoor Track and Field Championships as well as a World Cross Country Championship wrote for FitBit that as professional athletes, physical fitness has become a lifestyle for Ryan and me. But having recently become a mom, I had to rethink the best way to impart my love for physical challenges and a healthy lifestyle to my kids. We adopted our four daughters from Ethiopia after they’d spent three very inactive years in an orphanage. We knew we needed to get them started with physical activity for their own health, but we also wanted to find the right balance; we wanted them to grow to love fitness, not get burnt out and resent it. It’s been a journey, but we’ve managed to find a sound middle ground as a family. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Lead By Example
Kids naturally want to try things they see their parents doing, so the greatest thing you can do to get your kids involved in fitness is do it yourself. Soon after bringing my kids home from Ethiopia, they were curious to see all my different self-massage and stretching tools and try them out. They approached them with the same fun and curiosity kids bring to toys.
To get them more involved, we entered them in some short kid races being held at places I was running half or full marathons. My kids watched me win and have fun doing it, and they naturally wanted to try it out themselves. I’m definitely a believer in having kids “find their own way” and uncover their unique passions and talents, but it’s natural for them to do things they see modeled. Allowing your actions to help hone their love of fitness is a plus. When they see you prioritizing your workout, and hear you talk about the benefits of doing so, they’re forming positive associations. While our kids won’t likely all grow up to be professional athletes, our goal is that they will have their own love for sports and physical activity.
2. Give Your Kids A Choice
Kids need a certain amount of control over their lives, but I think that far too often we give them the option to do whatever they want, even if that means sitting in front of electronics for hours on end. In our house, we give our kids the choice to do whatever they want as long as they make their heart work and break a sweat doing it. Many days it’s jumping vigorously on the trampoline, playing soccer, jumping rope, running, lifting weights, or even chopping wood.
We want to give our kids the freedom to gravitate towards what is fun for them but also tell them that our heart is a muscle, and if we don’t make it work it gets weak, which is not healthy for our bodies. In our family, we all aim for four to five days a week of exercise. Even if your kid is artistic or musically gifted, as some of ours are, those activities should never replace doing something physical; our bodies are designed to move in order to live a healthy life.
3. Make Fitness Fun
Fitness activities are also a great way to have fun and interact with your kids. We often jump on the trampoline or swim together after school as a way to connect. We also like physical challenges, like doing 100 push-ups to get a prize or seeing how many times they can run up and down the stairs. Our kids love it, and they don’t even know that they’re exercising; to them it’s a game.
Another great way to make fitness fun is to embrace nature and go on hikes and trail runs together. Even if you don’t consider yourself a true runner, venturing to a beautiful place in nature adds a new element to your runs, which can help take your mind off of the steps while boosting your energy and improving your mood.
4. Embrace All Challenges
One of our core family values is to embrace challenges. We believe that doing hard things is fun. Often in American culture we value comfort. There’s nothing wrong with that, but solely staying in your comfort zone is boring. When kids work hard and overcome challenging things, it builds confidence in them that translates to the rest of their lives. We do them a disservice if we let them stay in their comfort zones and never know the thrill of persevering through adversity.
There is a great phrase in Amharic, our kids’ first language that they say to each other: “Berchi” which means “be strong”. We have adopted that phrase into our vocabulary. Ryan and I say it to ourselves at times we need to go out and do a hard workout in the freezing rain, and we say it to our kids as well. Now they even say it to themselves when they’re gearing up to get through something uncomfortable or difficult.
This last week, our oldest daughter, Hana, ran in one of her first track meets of the year. She’s had one of the greatest transformations, both in athleticism and self confidence (which often go hand in hand). When we adopted her two years ago, Hana wasn’t even able to run one lap around the track. Two years later she became a section champion in cross country. All of this happened through her learning to embrace challenges and train hard. By the end of her race, she was beaming with confidence.