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Raising Fitness Ninjas

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I have one passion, outside of my wife and kids of course: fitness. Fitness comes in a variety of flavors, and my personal fixations are of the physical and financial fitness variety. Many conversations between my wife and I have centered around how we are going to teach our children about the importance of these two concepts, and step numero uno may have just come from the most unexpected of sources.

Watch my kids for a few moments and it will become instantaneously evident what our favorite show to watch as a family is. My son will jump on and off of anything, regardless of the height, and his big sister can climb up and hang from things that would make a capuchin monkey think twice. How my children use the environment around them as a playground is clearly inspired by American Ninja Warrior. As awesome as the action sequences are, we’ve noticed recently that the participant exposés are getting a little overly dramatic for our personal tastes (hey NBC, free market research here) and are something we are more commonly using modern technology to fast forward through. But we are glad we didn’t hit the forward button on one. In a recent episode, one of the competitors discussed how his children’s allowance is based on fitness behaviors: a penny for each push-up, 50 cents for each mile ran, and bonuses based upon improving personal bests on any manner of different exercises. Ingenious.

Now, I have no intentions of bribing my children into a lifestyle that they don’t want, but I don’t think it is necessary to create a list of the evidence-based benefits associated with fitness (in all its iterations), and I am all about efficiency. Let’s fill several needs with one deed. While there are still a lot of details to figure out, and (as always) I am probably expecting far too much of a kindergartner (and in the future, her currently two-year-old brother), we have jotted down a few fundamental ideas from which we can formulate a proper plan around.

1. Learn from past mistakes

One of the keys to an active lifestyle is to find what type of activities you actually enjoy doing. We previously tried to incentivize our daughter to include more physical activity in her daily life (and teach her the value of hard work and the concept of progressive overload) by offering a reward if she was able to work up to doing a standard plank for two minutes and complete a set number of squats. It didn’t work. Planking just wasn’t her thing and daddy is a stickler for perfect squatting form. But riding bikes, climbing, “yogo” (yoga) with mommy, and hanging from stuff is right in her wheelhouse. This time around, I’ve purchased a pair of pink gymnastic rings for our garage gym for hanging exercises (and hopefully, someday, pull-ups); we are going to try to set aside time to do yoga as a family; and she’ll now accompany me each week on my cycling trip to the grocery store.

2. Teach saving and compounding

While this “earned” money is hers, it’s never too early to teach her about the 8th wonder of the world, compounding, right? Anybody capable of understanding basic mathematical concepts is ready for discussions about 401k matching, dividends, and tax deferment/efficiency (or so I think). One of the foundations of this new plan is a parental match if she chooses to save her bounty, as opposed to running immediately to the corner store toy section. This is the perfect opportunity to teach her that you save for things you want and that the foundation of lifelong financial fitness begins with paying yourself first (in the form of saving). Monthly, annually? I’m not sure yet when the bank of daddy will pay out its “dividends,” but I think we have to be creative in raising children who can pass the marshmallow test. Vocabulary words of the day: delayed and gratification.

3. Rewards

Since she reached that milestone age of 5, our daughter has had the opportunity to earn “big girl time.” As a reward for doing “big girl” things, such as cleaning her room and reading extra books, she earns the right to stay up a little longer than her little brother. Unfortunately, tired at the end of the night ourselves, we’ve allowed this reward to become screen time. This extra 20-30 minutes of wakefulness is usually spent with her pink headphones on, with her face in her tablet or mommy’s phone. We aren’t sending the right message and are actually making it more difficult for her to fall asleep. Similarly, I’ve spoken at several obesity conferences where I listened to fellow presenters speak about school programs that rewarded students for being physically active with vouchers for free pizza and soda. It’s simply amazing how hypocritical common rewards systems can be, and we are all guilty of it. As parents, we have to set down some boundaries in order to develop neural pathways that encourage a healthy perspective on rewards systems. I propose two ground rules: fitness allowance cannot be spent on anything with a screen or an ingredient list that has several different unpronounceable variations of sugar.

While we all have to accept that we ultimately have limited control regarding the lifestyle behaviors that our children develop, we only get one shot at cultivating the future leaders of this world and it begins with us. Be a healthy lifestyle role model and don’t be afraid to get creative in how you share your value system with your children. Stay tuned for updates in our effort to nurture physical and financial health ninjas.

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