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6 Benefits of Physical Activity for Your Child’s Behavior (And Your Sanity!)

Posted Aug 21 2012 8:10pm

Today I have special healthy treat for all my wonderful readers! Please welcome the wonderful Manny the Manny !

As someone relatively new to the world of regular exercise, it’s taken me a while to recognize all of its benefits. When my roommate and I decided on a whim to do P90X about a year and half ago, I agreed essentially because I wanted to look better with my shirt off. Ninety days later, I proclaimed that mission accomplished, but I had gained so much more than that.

Look, you don’t need me to tell you about the benefits of regular exercise – better health, longer life, stronger muscles and bones, sexy looks from strangers, increased probability of super powers – those are all obvious. After all, you read HMR, so in the words of Wayne Campbell, “You’ve heard, you’ve seen, you know.”

But are you aware of the ways that exercise can influence your child’s behavior? The link between physical activity and positive behavior in children is a powerful one, and with good reason. In fact, there are at least six good reasons:

(1) Exercise teaches discipline. Now, lest anyone get hung up on that ugly “D” word, let me explain something. Discipline is not a synonym for punishment or rigidity. Instead, discipline is a value that we teach our children, so that they are better able to take control of themselves and interact cooperatively with others. It is our job as parents and caregivers to teach children discipline. An exercise routine – and indeed, any routine – helps provide valuable structure that children need.

(2) Exercise provides an outlet for excess energy, allowing children to burn it off in a positive way. Children are bundles of energy. It’s everywhere. It practically oozes out of them. Find a way to bottle it, and you’ve solved the world’s fuel crisis forever. It’s the closest thing in existence to actual perpetual motion. And every parent knows that given half a chance, a child will release that energy in any way they see fit, including pulling out all your shoelaces and turning them into a leash for the cat. Physical activity redirects that energy toward a positive, productive effort.

(3) Engaging in physical activity with your child provides opportunities to build a healthier, stronger relationship, which promotes positive behavior. Kids like and respect adults who take the time to get to know them and hang out with them. Few things are a better bonding experience than a game of catch or going for a run together. (And yes, you can seriously take your kids running with you. My fiancee’s cousin just ran her first 1 mile race this summer at the age of 5.)

(4) Physical activity builds resilience. Think of it like algebra. You know how every high schooler complains about algebra? “When am I ever gonna need this?” Well, in reality, you don’t. At least, not often, and I’m sure most adults get by just fine without using any algebra. However, algebra builds mental toughness. It fosters skills of persistence and problem solving. Regular activity does the same thing, but with the added bonus of being more useful every day. A resilient child copes with frustration more readily and acts out less.

(5) Exercise promotes positive mood and affect, which promotes positive behavior. The other day, Amanda shared on her Facebook page a quote from fitness guru Bill Phillips: “Food is the most widely abused anti-anxiety drug in America, and exercise is the most potent yet underutilized anti-depressant.” Kids who are in bad moods tend to act out, and physical activity help keeps them in a good mood. Endorphins are real things, people. Let’s make use of them.

(6) Physical activity can have particular benefits for children with special needs, including autism. At least one study found that in autistic children, aerobic activity was linked to improved attention span and on-task behavior. At least anecdotally, I can tell you that Salvador – one of the kids I care for, who has ADHD – is much more able to focus when he has spent some time riding his bike or skateboard first. The relationship makes perfect logical sense: the lack of excess energy makes kids less prone to distraction and better able to get down to the task at hand. If your child has special needs, seriously consider making some form of physical activity a part of his or her regular routine.

The benefits of exercise are undeniable, and having a physically active child can make your life as a parent much easier and more enriching. Does that mean your kiddo should start training for the Olympics as soon as you’re done reading this post? Of course not. Discuss any fitness plan with your child’s doctor first and take care not to overdo it. The point is to be healthier and happier, so making it a stressful experience will be counterproductive.

Manny the Manny is the alter ego of New York City’s finest male nanny and blogger extraordinaire. In addition to holding a BS in psychology from Michigan State University, he has more than 11 years of experience taking care of children of all ages and backgrounds, from summer camp to non-secure detention. He is also a certified parent trainer. Manny doles out his best advice, geeky empirical knowledge and real life anecdotes at . You can also follow him on Twitter , Facebook and Pinterest .


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