Raise the (chin-up) bar to get kids to lose weight

Devon McGregor, National Post · May 5, 2009 | Last Updated: May 5, 2009 8:01 PM ET

If you let me play sports, I will like myself more. I will have more self-confidence — 1995 Nike ad campaign

The pre-adolescent children featured in the campaign provided compelling arguments for why kids should play sports — being 60% less likely to experience breast cancer or suffer from depression stick out. Of course, Nike’s coffers benefit when your kids play sports. But more importantly, so do your kids.

“How do you motivate kids to want to lose weight? It’s one thing to talk about it, but how do you get them to change their behaviour?”

These questions come from a reader of my most recent column, “The battle against obesity must begin in childhood.” Of course, her question is apt. But encouraging individuals to be more active without direction is not enough.

This particular reader was frustrated. She had been trying to help her teenage son conquer obesity. “He knows all the health risks of being overweight,” she writes. “He knows if he doesn’t do something now he could stay fat and unhealthy for life. He knows he should exercise and eat properly. He knows he should walk instead of taking elevators. He knows he should get off the computer. That’s all common sense. But what he lacks is motivation.”

It is clear she cares about his well being, but is at a loss as to which direction to go next. “Like [with] any addiction,” she said, “it has to come from within.”

“He has been monitored by the pediatrician and lost a bit, but once he started putting it back on, he stopped going”, she writes. “He was referred to the healthy living clinic at a local hospital, but won’t fill out the forms or the three-day food diary in order to get that first appointment with the dietitian and doctor.” And finally: “I don’t want to push him, but it breaks my heart to see him growing bigger and bigger and doing nothing about it.”

That last sentence broke my heart, too.

I’ve watched and trained many teens through their adolescent years. A third generation of teens have now passed through our fitness centre’s training and therapy systems, with achievements ranging from improved self-esteem and body image to weight loss and injury recovery. They have grown up to be better young adults, with improved concentration, coordination and body awareness.

I can recall a phone conversation during our second year with a concerned father who was wondering: “Is it possible that my 14-year-old daughter is addicted to your gym?” What he really wanted to know was if his once-introverted daughter had grown obsessed with her body and fitness.

She had once been shy and had come to us because the responsibilities of school were stressing her out. She was having problems sleeping and was putting on weight. Everything was spiralling down from there.

A smile would come to my face as the once shy, but very bright girl would converse easily with adult members. She wasn’t intimidated by their success. In fact, I believe that part of her turnaround came equally from her improved fitness, as well as being able to experience how successful people manage their own time and stress factors. That gave her confidence, which in turn allowed fitness to stick as a positive habit.

Success breeds more success, and kids are not exempt from this rule. Kids who experience perceptible return on their investments of time and effort are more likely to be motivated to continue investing more time and effort, as long as it continues to pay off. Consistently high levels of motivation eventually harden into tenacity. 

Nobody likes to fail, children and teens included. Usually, when we believe we will fail at something, we stop doing it. It doesn’t help if those around us are good at it. It is therefore important for kids to begin with activities at the gym that lead to immediate success — tangible, observable success — which comes through proper guidance and coaching.

For example, pull-ups are very challenging for everybody, especially for those who are overweight. However, if we lower the bar so a kid’s feet can still touch the floor, there are very few kids who wouldn’t be able to jump and pull themselves (their chins) up to the bar at least eight times. The following two workouts, we could ask them to perform 10, then 12 repetitions. If the following week we elevated the bar so they were on their tip-toes, the challenge would be marginally greater, but still achievable. Gradually, they would improve in strength, self-confidence and motivation.

Kids learn from the examples we set. Do you or other adult family members have a fitness routine? If you don’t, you are asking your child to begin something they believe isn’t even important to you. And kids are great at rationalizing (especially to get out of doing things).

When giving a child the option of playing video games or being physically active, one shouldn’t be surprised if they choose video games. Here is where parents need to be tougher. Give them options, but make minimum requirements for playing sports and taking part in games.

How do we get our kids to be motivated to be more active and health-conscious? Make them get started; seek help and advice from experts; stay connected and involved and set a good example.

And Motivate. Motivate. Motivate.

-Devon McGregor, BFA, BSc, human kinetics, is a fitness expert with more than 18 years experience and co-founder of Balance (balancefit.com), a Toronto fitness centre.


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