Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Instill a Healthy Attitude About Exercise in Our Children

Day one saw three excited children hurtling down the quarter mile, winding gravel drive that links our corner of the farm with my in laws' place.

That excitement lasted maybe fifteen seconds before my four-year-old son, Emerson, put on the brakes and turned puffing with hands of his hips to complain.

"My knees hurt."

Imperfect mother that I am, I actually frowned and rolled my eyes heavenward before my heart caught up with my brain to force a grin and speak words of encouragement over him.

"It's okay, Emerson," I said, jogging past him.  "Keep going.  It'll get easier.  You can do this!  C'mon, catch up!"

Seconds later, he passed me up, then stopped a few feet ahead...again.  Same complaint.

My Emerson is solid and strong like an elephant, completely unlike the light and airy bird that is his twin sister, Amelia.  Then, there is their older brother, Wyatt.  We call him our "gazelle," the competitive one always powering ahead to the blue bird box, then passing up his mother and sister on the run back to the house so he can sit at the finish line and heckle us "slow pokes."

If any one of my children wasn't built for distance running, it's Emerson.

When husband and I decided it would be a good idea for our family to run in the Louisiana Kids' Marathon, I expected this child to have the most trouble with our new running program.

I was wrong.

Almost three weeks into the "training" that will see our family run the full 26.2 miles over nine weeks that the super men and women will run all at once in mid January 2013, I'm learning that my daughter is the one who needs the most encouragement.

Emerson has learned to compete with Wyatt.  No, he never wins, unless big brother stops, distracted by beauty, to pick up red leaves freshly fallen on the drive or is suffering from a cold.  Still, the rivalry between brothers is there, always leaving Amelia and me in the dust.

Ever slow, she is the child most unsure of herself, the one who stumbles and falls when her attention wavers and who craves those positive, verbal reinforcements to constantly propel her forward.

She is also the one who wants so desperately to be like me, especially in this.

Unlike the boys, she never leaves my side unless tired or distracted by a leaf, a pretty rock.  Even then, she catches up and reaches up for my hand.  And so we run, hand in hand, side by side, my long legs slowing to match her shorter, double-time stride.

"I'm exercising! Just like you, mommy!" She grins at me, this vision of boyish femininity in pink tutu. I squeeze her hand and grin back, a mirror separated only by the wrinkles of time.
Our daily run finished, I slip off my running shoes to find they have been displaced by hers, tiny pink sneakers lined up atop the olive green bathroom scales where my shoes have rested for the past two years.

Instead of fussing at her to put them in the cubby where they belong, I quietly sit mine on the floor beside hers.

How can I complain? This is the only mother she ever remembers knowing, the one who has routinely exercised five day a week on the upstairs treadmill since Spring 2011.

She'll tell you why mommy exercises, too.  "To stay healthy for us."


Growing up, exercise was always about losing weight, about the number on the scales. 

When I was much younger, my mother did aerobics, I assume before my brother and I awoke each morning or while we were at school.  All I remember is her white sweatband and the over-sized laminated book demonstrating each exercise in black and white simplicity.  On the front cover was a bright picture of a woman with big 80s hair; a black, skin-tight outfit; and striped, hot pink leg warmers.  Even then, I hated that woman's broad-smiled perkiness and taught figure.

By college, my mother had measured off the circumference of the empty field next to our house, the one designated for summertime baseball games. Together, we spent many happy evenings walking in circles.  But the damage had already been done.

I equated exercise with punishment for being born with genes predisposing me to a tummy that hadn't been flat since the fifth grade.  Exercise was just a reflection of an eternal fight to look like someone I could never be and to always be unhappy with who I was.

In front of the mirror, I still struggle with this definition and God's vision of me as "wonderfully made."  But some words like 'losing weight' or 'fat' never cross the lips of anyone in our house. My struggles are my own.  I refuse to pass them on to my daughter, at least not without a good fight.


This marathon we're running together that takes over two months to run a measly twenty-six miles--it won't impress most people.  But that's not the point.  

For Emerson and Amelia, the point is the "jewelry," the medal at the end.  For Wyatt, it's winning.

For their mother, this is about demonstrating not only in my own personal actions how to take care of the fleshly temple God has given me but to also let my children demonstrate those choices with me by running alongside...or ahead, or behind.

It's about learning by doing, starting early to instill a healthier definition, a different attitude in their malleable minds so that one day, taking care of their own temples will be something that comes naturally even without a mother's nagging voice reminding them to make "healthy choices." 


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  2. This is such a good thing, Jennifer. Not because you're running, or winning or getting jewelry :) But, because you are making this issue a part of every day life with them early on and teaching them (by example!) to make good choices and take good care of their bodies. Wish we could be there to cheer you on at the finish line!

  3. Learning by doing. A great reminder. I love that your Amelia wants to be like her mommy.

    1. I know one morning, that desire will be gone, but hope when she gets through that phase all teenage girls must go through, she'll want to be like me once again. :-)