Parenting has become tougher in the last 10 years. Sure, many families need both parents to work in order to pay the bills. And of course, expectations at school and extracurricular activities have morphed into a full-time job for both kids and parents. But the most prominent change has been the presence of ever-present screens in the lives of kids and their parents. For some parents, screen time is as much of an issue as it is for kids. They don’t take their eyes off their phones, giving them less time to parent. Most of you know the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”, but this advice doesn’t work very well. It’s far better to model what you want your kids to do, and if that is to moderate screen time parents need to do it as well! I think that the best thing to do to combat excessive screen time is to exercise regularly.
Daily exercise has many attributes. Exercise improves physical and emotional health. It improves learning, executive functions, working memory, and the ability to handle stress. But it also is an activity that is not focused on a screen. Sure, you can watch a movie while exercising on an elliptical machine, or listen to music while running, but in those cases, the screen is helping you engage in a healthy activity. Daily exercise, is one important part of a healthy “Play Diet”. When kids exercise, they have more energy to engage in other non-sedentary activities, they are usually doing things with peers, and they build a long term healthy approach to life activities.
The physical benefits of exercise have been well documented for generations. The U.S. Department of Health recommends that people get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week. Studies indicate that children who exercise regularly develop a relationship with their bodies that is inconsistent with alcohol, drug, and tobacco use. Regular exercise also leads to higher levels of energy, self-esteem, and stamina for school, work, and other activities.
Exercise is an important tool for managing stress and helping in regulating anger and anxiety. Research demonstrates that physical exercise strengthens higher-order thinking skills such as organization, task initiation, and sustained attention, also known as executive functions. Exercise has also been proven to be effective in promoting positive moods.
In addition, regular vigorous exercise has been shown to improve academic performance and sustained attention in children with ADHD, Executive Functioning problems, poor Working Memory, and Learning Disabilities. Following an exercise routine can lead to greater self-confidence, which may improve performance in academic and social situations.
Studies have also found that while aerobic exercise helps strengthen attention and learning, greater gains may occur with activities that demand more coordination such as walking on a balance beam or an unstable object, rock climbing, or learning piano. Sports that involve complex body movements such as karate, tennis, and baseball are also more effective at improving executive functions. Any motor skill more complex than walking has to be learned, and therefore exercises the brain more rigorously, resulting in more connections between neurons (brain cells).
It often takes some time for those who have not previously exercised to develop the habit of exercise. It is a good idea to go slowly and to keep the focus on enjoying the activity. When exercise is presented as another chore, children may become resistant to the idea. However when physical exercise becomes a family value that is woven into family activities on a regular and fun basis, everyone benefits.
Here are some easy ways reduce screen time simply by incorporating exercise into your family’s routine:
Model commitment and pleasure from physical exercise. It is unrealistic to expect children to be active if they see their parents living a sedentary lifestyle. Find a way to do a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise 5 times per week.
Make exercising part of your family’s daily routine. Engage in a fun physical activity every night before or after dinner. Go for family walks or bike rides, play soccer or wiffle ball in your yard, work out with an exercise video, dance, or play games that require you to get up and move.
Have your child help to plan a fun, physically active event each weekend. Suggest activities such as playing sports, hiking, taking bicycle trips, having a treasure hunt, going to the driving range or batting cages, bowling, going to the beach, visiting amusement parks or museums, or going to zoos or aquariums. Make outings easy and fun for a child’s participation.
Join the YMCA or local community center or gym. This will provide your family with a place to continue to be active in cold weather. These centers offer classes in which children can participate such as swimming, yoga, karate, dance, spinning, and more. They also have family nights where the whole family can play a sport together or go swimming.
Enroll your child in an organized activity such as gymnastics, ice skating, yoga, karate, rock climbing, or dance. Consider whether your child prefers individual or group games before enrolling the child in anything. Keep the focus on the fun of the game and don’t become overly involved in any competitive aspect.
Keep your child motivated to exercise. Many children are more motivated to exercise when listening to music. Have children listen to their favorite music on cell phone while exercising. Children can also be motivated by keeping track of how long or how much they exercise and then trying to beat their time/distance the next time they exercise.
Have all family members keep track of their exercise activities. Use fitness bands or old fashioned pencil and paper to monitor exercise. Reward family members who have made the most progress or tried something new.
Create exercise challenges for your family. Get your children to identify new opportunities for exercise at home or in other locations and then DO THEM! For example, consider walking upstairs in an airport or hotel, parking far away from a store while shopping, shoveling the snow shortly after it starts and then when it finishes, walking or riding a bike to school or a store, or driving partway to an activity and taking a scenic walk the rest of the way.