When your child hates exercise, how do you get them moving?

Convincing your child to break up with the couch and get moving can be a challenge.
Convincing your child to break up with the couch and get moving can be a challenge. Photo: Getty

My 12-year-old daughter hates exercise. I mean, she really hates it. With a passion I would love to see in her studies or efforts to keep her room tidy.

I know for myself how important exercise is, not only to my physical wellbeing, but to my emotional and mental wellbeing. And as my daughter rides the waves of adolescence and heads off to high school next year, I feel like self care will become more important than ever.

"Lead by example," say all the experts, and we do. I'm an avid long-distance runner, and her father swims several kilometres every day. Add to that a stepfather who loves to run and a stepmother who takes long walks and enjoys regular yoga classes, and we've got all those bases covered. None of us knows what to do with this baffling, sedentary creature in our midst.

We've tried loads of different types of activities: some she may like for a little while, but then the novelty wears off - and I suspect she realises there is exercise involved. Then she goes back to reading, playing Minecraft and slothing on the couch. 

She does ju jitsu once a week but, although I think self defence is a valuable skill, I've watched those classes and there is a whole lot of standing around going on in that hour. She needs to be doing more.

I've tried doing various activities with her: walks around our neighbourhood, setting up circuits in the back yard, and cycling. None of them impressed her much and I found them boring too, so neither of us was keen to keep them going.

The situation was exacerbated recently by the gift of a phone for her birthday. Now she sends me a text from her bedroom to ask if dinner's ready.

I asked clinical psychologist Sasha Lynn what she would suggest to get an exercise-hating kid on the move. Dr Lynn says we need to start by changing my daughter's perception of exercise. 

"Instead of focusing on the 'exercise', get her to come up with other ideas of new things to try that could be fun or a new challenge. So then the exercise becomes more incidental to the activity at hand."

I know that in the past, my daughter's lack of natural ability in traditional sports has meant she has shied away from participating, especially in team sports. 

This is natural, says Dr Lynn. " But exercise can be found in many different types of activities. If she's not down with running or swimming or ball sports, that's a-okay."

Dr Lynn suggests exploring some different options such as rock climbing, kayaking, yoga, dancing, or even some more left-of-centre activities such as orienteering or circus classes. "If there's enjoyment attached, and it doesn't feel like it's forced then motivation can build from there."

Praise is important, of course, for every step along the way. "The second you catch her doing anything remotely active, jump all over it. Heap her with praise, and help her to reflect on the benefits she's found from being active," says Dr Lynn.

Dr Lynn says it can also help to keep a diary. "Every time she's active, get her to write down the good stuff that has come out of it, so when she's not feeling so crash hot about it, she can reflect and visually see all the positive moments she's had."

Of course, for any of this to work, my daughter has to be ready and willing to take part, and I'm aware that pushing her too hard will result in her digging in her heels (if only that counted as exercise!).  

That's where positive reinforcement comes in, says Dr Lynn. "Using a reward chart or a reward app can help a lot, so we'd be remiss not to consider such benefits in bolstering our kids' motivation. Turning it into a challenge, building point systems in, and making it a game out of it can be a great way to kick-start motivation."

Helping this kid find her exercise groove has been a challenge so far, but I know the key will be to find a way for her to be active that she chooses herself, and that she actually wants to do. 

Dr Lynn says, "While we need to guide them to see that exercise is important, we can't push too hard. We want to help them build a healthy attitude to being active."

My daughter is old enough now to make her own decisions, which is a tough thing for a parent to face. Her body, her decision, her consequences - but I'll continue to do my best to coax her in the right direction.