Getting My Overweight Child Active

by David Egan on July 6, 2011


Regular physical activity is a key way to fight childhood obesity - but is getting kids active easier said than done?

Childhood obesity is a growing problem, with increasing numbers of children worldwide suffering from obesity.

Overweight children tend to grow into overweight adults – so it’s important to help children to deal with their weight issue as early as possible.

One key way to fight obesity is to get kids active.

This article is for parents of children who are not physically active, and who have a problem with their weight.

Is My Child Inactive?

Your child should be physically active for at least 60 minutes on most days. This might seem like a lot, but they don’t have to get their 60 minute dose all in one go – it can be broken into shorter blocks. Short periods of walking and active play all add up to the 60 minute daily total.

Children often do not get enough physical activity – for many parents, getting kids active for 60 minutes per day might seem like a totally unachievable target. Don’t panic! Your child can start gradually.

Remember that your child will benefit from any physical activity at all – and you might be surprised at how you can gradually increase your child’s exercise dose by making simple changes and providing some basic support.

What Stops Overweight Kids Being Active?

Overweight children are are often worried about their body image, have low self-esteem, and may have been bullied because of their weight. These issues can prevent children from being active – kids are less likely to take part when they feel self-conscious or victimised. One of the biggest barriers to being active in overweight children is concern about others seeing their body.

Overweight children may be discriminated against by sports coaches, teachers and other adults – they may be passed over for team selection and excluded from sports participation. It is well documented that doctors, health & education personnel commonly have a prejudiced attitude towards overweight children.

All of these issues are barriers that help prevent your child from being active. Fortunately, we can break these barriers down.

Give Some Parental Support

Research shows that parental involvement is essential in getting kids active – especially in younger children. Here are some ways to show your support:

  • Take an interest in the activities that your kids get involved in
  • Don’t focus on your child’s weight – concentrate instead on helping them to be active & to eat healthily
  • Be positive – show support no matter what your child achieves – when parents are too demanding or negative, kids retreat from activity

Be aware that your overweight child faces real obstacles to being active – be understanding, be positive, and make changes together.

Get Involved

One of the best ways to get your children more active is for you to be active with them. If you want to get your kids active, you need to do things with them rather than tell them to do things!

Get out and be active with your children. It might be a simple game of catch, kicking a ball around or walking the dog, but being active with your child has enormous benefits for you both.  Set some targets for joint activities:

  • Aim to go for a walk together at least three times per week, gradually increasing the length of the walk
  • Schedule a game of frisbee or catch in the park for the weekend
  • Attend an exercise class together on a regular basis, or sign up for dance classes together

Give Kids Some Pride

Help kids to appreciate their bodies for what they can do, not how they look – focus on how strong they are, or on how they can throw, jump and kick. When you mention being more active, talk to your kids about improving their fitness rather than reducing their weight.

You may need to focus on physical activities that don’t emphasise body awareness if your child is self-conscious about their size. If your kids want to avoid certain activities (e.g. swimming), that’s OK.

You should also try to reduce the social pressure on your kids to look a certain way – you could explain that models and celebrities that your kids see in magazines/on TV are not realistic.

Focus on: Activity & Diet – Not Obesity!

active children playing

Active play is a great way to keep kids active and help control childhood obesity

Children are often well-aware when they are overweight and concentrating on weight issues can be unhelpful. Focus instead on helping your child to get fitter and set realistic fitness goals – for example:

  • Be able to run for 15 minutes
  • Walk for 1/2 an hour without stopping
  • Play a full game of football
  • Keep going through a dance class

To set physical activity goals, work out something that your child can’t do, but that they would like to do. Then together set a realistic timeframe for your goals. For example, “my goal is to be able to run for 15 minutes without stopping, and I’m going to achieve this by the end of next month”.

Make sure your goals are realistic – if your child is completely inactive, being able to run continuously for 15 minutes by the end of next month is probably an unrealistic goal, and you’ll need a more realistic time-frame.

Make sure that you work out how you’re going to achieve your physical activity goals – we’ll be writing an article on this issue in the coming months.

Set food goals alongside your activity goals: avoid junk food, eat more fruit & veg & stop drinking fizzy drinks.

Get Rid of Inactive Habits!

It’s difficult for your children to be active if they watch TV & play computer games for hours each day! Remember that you are the boss, so take control and make some changes:

  • If your child has a TV in their room, remove it
  • Control the amount of TV the family watches
  • Control the amount of computer games that your child plays – remove the console from their room if necessary
  • See our article for more tips on cutting your family’s screen time

Don’t Panic, Some Activity is Better than None

Any activity, no matter how little, will provide some health benefits for your child. The simplest thing you could do for your child is to make sure that they are active in some way every day.

Build Activity Levels Gradually

If your children are not physically active, they will need to start gradually and work up to the recommended levels of activity. As they become more used to exercise, their body will adapt and they will gradually take part in more and/or longer sessions.

Carrying extra weight may make it more difficult for your child to move. What seems like a slow walk to a non-overweight child can be strenuous exercise to an overweight child – so parents need to be understanding and patient. If your child starts being active, they will progressively become fitter and they will be able to handle more exercise. Be patient and don’t push them too hard.

What Activity?

Talk to your children and find out what activities interest them. Find out why they want to take part in a particular activity – it might be to win medals, to learn a new skill, to get fitter, or just to make new friends. Whatever the reason, support your child and pull out all the stops to encourage them.

If necessary, let your kids “sample” a wide range of activities until they find the one that is right for them. It might be a bit of work for you as a parent, but you could be changing your child’s life.

It’s probably best that your children take part in a range of activities throughout the day, to help them get their daily dose of exercise. Activities might include:

  • Play – unstructured, unsupervised, kids are usually great at playing when we give them the chance
  • Walking – try to encourage your family to walk whenever possible – get off the bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way, or leave the car at home for short trips
  • Cycling – cycling can be a great way for your kids to get around, and provides your children with some healthy exercise
  • Organised activities – sports, dance, aerobics, yoga – basically whatever your child is interested in
  • Why not see if your child is interested in some alternative activities, such as street dance, skateboarding, trampolining or archery – you might be surprised whats on offer in your local sports hall

Be An Activist for Activity!

If you feel that your child is being excluded because of their weight, don’t be afraid to make a stand. Schools should be doing as much as possible to encourage children to be more active, so make sure that your child has access to decent PE classes, including a wide range of activities and games that they enjoy.

Don’t Push

Yes, it is very important for your child to be active, but forcing children to be active is a bad idea. Never push your child into physical activities that they don’t like – this will be counter-productive. Far better to talk to your kids and work with them. Find out what activities might interest them, and do your best to encourage them.

Food & Physical Activity

Don’t give your child junk food after they have been active. In fact, don’t give your child junk food at all – but especially not after exercise, and especially not as a treat! You might think that I am being patronising, but I have seen parents of overweight children bringing their kids sweets and sugary drinks as snacks after activity sessions – this undoes all the good work! Foods to avoid:

  • Sports drinks (e.g. lucozade, powerade) – far too sugary
  • Fizzy drinks (e.g. coke, fanta, pepsi, including diet drinks) – too sugary, may be bad for bone health, even diet varieties not good for overweight children as they encourage a sweet tooth
  • Sweets & chocolate
  • Crisps (even low fat)
  • Cereal bars (usually high in sugar)
  • Fast food (yes, we have seen parents bringing McDonalds meals to overweight children after exercise classes)

Don’t panic if you’re child is hungry after activity – they may well be able to wait until the next mealtime, and remember that being active is a great way to build up an appetite!


  • If your child is overweight and inactive, don’t ignore the situation – do something about it, ASAP
  • Don’t focus on your child’s weight – concentrate instead on helping them to be active and to eat a healthy diet
  • Talk to your child – find out what kind of activities they might like
  • Help your child to try a range of different activities
  • Give loads of support and encouragement – being overweight is difficult and your child needs your support
  • Help your child to get some activity every day
  • When your kids are active, avoid giving them junk food – stick to healthy meals
  • Set realistic goals for physical activity
  • Be active with your kids – walk together, play together, be active together!

Hopefully this article has given you some ideas to help get your child active. Of course, being overweight isn’t just about being active – poor diet and poor sleeping habits are also linked to obesity, and we’ll address these issues in forthcoming articles.
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