Brett Klika by Brett Klika

One in five of America’s school-aged children are above the 95th percentile for body mass index (BMI), indicating obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The result is an increase in health risk factors, social struggles and future health risks for these kids. Likewise, the American Heart Association suggests that childhood obesity is currently the number-one youth-related health concern for parents. This now eclipses concerns over drug and alcohol use.

This three-fold increase in childhood obesity has largely been attributed to an increase in caloric intake and a decrease in physical activity. Kids are eating more and moving less than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

Having identified the culprits, the solution to childhood obesity appears to be an easy fix. We just need to motivate kids to move more and eat less. Problem solved. Anyone who works with kids, however, understands that motivating kids to change their habits can be a challenge.

The interplay of a child’s phase of brain development and the resulting psychology renders children more impulsive, emotional and less capable of assessing the actions/outcomes relationship. As adults, we cannot assume that children are motivated by the same things that motivate us.

How then, can we inspire “unmotivated” children to make changes to their health-related habits? Here are three strategies that have been examined both in the research and in my nearly 20 years of working with kids of all physical abilities and levels of motivation. While modifying nutrition habits is essential, the focus of the interventions here is exercise habits.

Three key components of motivating an unmotivated child to exercise include:

  • Parental participation
  • Facilitating perceived competency
  • Education

Parental Participation

Children mirror the behaviors of their parents. When it comes to health, research published in the International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders suggests that having one obese parent increases the likelihood of childhood obesity threefold. Two obese parents increases the likelihood tenfold. The research also suggests that for a child to have success with a behavior-change strategy, at least one parent must participate as well.

It’s important to consider the actions, behaviors and beliefs about physical activity at home. If kids hear their parents talking about healthy habits as some sort of punishment for indulgence, their perception of physical activity will undoubtedly become negative.

One of the most positive things you can do as a parent is to engage in physical activity with your kids. It’s important that they see that you enjoy being active. While it has been suggested that limiting screen time amongst youngsters can help improve health, the same goes for adults. Getting off the couch to engage with your kids renders multiple benefits for everyone involved.

Facilitating Perceived Competency

There was a time when children engaged in physically rigorous play during their free time, participated in daily physical education in school, and also had the opportunity to play different sports throughout the year. This gave kids numerous opportunities to find activities they enjoyed. Granted, there were still children who did not gravitate toward rigorous physical activity, but many options were available.

Currently, interaction with technology occupies the average child’s free time and very few schools have frequent physical education. Participation in sports has become the primary outlet for youth physical activity. If a child does not excel in the handful of sports they may be exposed to, a negative attitude toward their own physical competency can be formed.

Research suggests that a child’s level of perceived competence and autonomy with an activity is a powerful motivator. Children and adults alike are more likely to do what they feel they do well.

To encourage this, it’s important to expose children to a wide spectrum of physical activity. Competitive sports represent a small fraction of the ways children can form a relationship with exercise. As your children’s fitness “mentor,” you may have to think outside of the box to help them discover activities they enjoy.

Exercise does not have to be a high-intensity, heart-pounding, competitive endeavor. A low-intensity, play-based activity may work to get kids off the couch. For example, something like juggling may not burn many calories, but it builds hand-eye coordination, rhythm and other sensory skills. Practicing this activity could make things like catching a ball, dancing or other high-intensity pursuits easier. Of course, depending on the child, it may not. However, any activity requiring movement is better for a child’s health than sitting and watching television.


As mentioned before, young children often lack the mental capacity to tie their current actions to future outcomes. It’s difficult to motivate a child to “find exercise you enjoy now or you may struggle with your health as an adult.” However, research on physical/health education in schools suggests that kids’ participation, motivation and adherence to exercise improves when they understand why they are doing what they are doing.

When either facilitating or participating in physical activity with children, highlight how physical activity benefits their life outside of the standard “weight loss, health and improved performance” answers. For example, ask them how they feel after exercise. Usually they are energized, alert and even more focused. Establishing a broader understanding of the importance of exercise and health increases the likelihood children will identify with something relevant to them, making it a lifelong habit.

Try these three motivational approaches with your kids to inspire them to be active for life!

Inspire our youth to move today and tomorrow with ACE's Youth Fitness Specialist program

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