© Connie Larsen | Dreamstime.com
Don’t look now, but your children are watching you. They see you take a load off, crack open a locally brewed craft beer, your hand in a bag of Aunt Lizzie’s Cheese Straws while you catch up on Orange is the New Black. But did they see you destroy the 20-miler you conquered on your bike Saturday morning? How much of the whole, fit you does your child see?
“Children look up to adults and what they see, they do,” says Kimberly Baker, manager of child life education and movement at the Church Health Center. “They notice when the adults in their lives prioritize healthy eating and regular exercise.”
When children replicate the behavior they see in others, they are practicing deferred imitation, an ancient learning method programmed into our brains. Human offspring have always learned how to behave by watching the people around them and testing out the actions they’ve seen.
By practicing them ourselves, we can steer our children into healthy, active lifestyles, which are big players in many quality-of-life outcomes. The benefits to heart health, weight control, and prevention of illnesses like diabetes are well known, but healthy eating and physical fitness give a boost to less obvious aspects of life, too.
Studies show that a good diet and regular exercise are fantastic for brains, leading to an increase in executive function test scores of as much as 100 percent. When children and their caregivers exercise together, the increases can be even more profound. Similar brain boosts have been seen in studies looking at memory, spatial reasoning, and learning ability.
“The literature says that kids and parents who exercise together both see benefits,” says Baker. “In fact, many times, the child is the agent of change. A parent sees the joy that their child experiences during these sessions of activity, and it motivates the adults to get up and get out when they feel drained.”
“Exercise benefits mood, health, feelings of well-being, so sometimes simply starting gets the momentum up for real exercise,” says Baker. “I think it’s really cool that kids can become the motivators of active fitness in families, because they are just that enthusiastic about being active with their family.”
Baker notes that in the past decade, Memphis has begun to overflow with options for active families. A favorite destination for her family is the Greenline, which for them serves as a motivating challenge.
“When the kids were young, we started by only doing portions of it, but the idea of walking or running the whole thing became the goal,” she says. “Beginning in Binghampton and taking it all the way out to Shelby Farms was the challenge, and something we worked up to.”
She also likes the many city parks that offer both a playground and a walking track, like Sea Isle Park, Avon Park, Marquette, and Audubon Park.
East Park next to East High School is another great one. “You can start your outing at the Central Library, and then stop at the park for some activity.”
We teach our children by our actions, and they’ve always got an eye on us. What we do, who we are—all taken in by these curious eyes—becomes the foundation of who they are. With so many immediate and useful benefits to an active lifestyle, our children deserve to be led by our good example.