AFM fencers play beach volleyball during summer fencing campWe all know that exercise is good for us and we’re familiar with some of the most common benefits: a fitter, stronger body and mind—both mental clarity and improved mood, and lower risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. But did you know that a new study shows that exercise can also change the shape and function of our genes? You can click the link for the nitty-gritty details, but basically this study suggests that we may be able to train our genes in order to get healthier and more functional muscles. I’m no scientist, but can you imagine what this might mean for children and whether they are active in their younger years?

The number of children who aren’t getting any exercise grows every day, as does our children’s love of video games and cell phones—all things that keep them sedentary. Playing in the neighborhood street with the kids next door isn’t the given that it used to be, kids aren’t getting the social and physical activity that older generations did by playing street games with the neighbors. Lack of exercise in children can cause childhood obesity, but can also be the first step toward serious problems down the road—even in children that don’t show problematic symptoms in their youth. According to William B. Strong, MD, “If we don’t do something to get children moving we are going to have a phenomenal epidemic of obesity-related diseases 20-30 years from now.”

We can’t allow this. We’re failing our children if we’re not getting them moving!

We can’t rely on our child’s P.E. class to provide an adequate amount of exercise. A recent government-funded study showed that children typically get less than 25 minutes of exercise a week in school-based physical education programs. Meanwhile, an hour a day is the official recommendation for developing physical activity as a healthy lifestyle habit and thus creating healthy adult genes.  Not to mention the children who are getting enough exercise in other ways, team sports or other physical activities outside of school, will thrive in P.E. class while the ones who need the exercise the most will tend to stay on the outskirts and get the least out of this time.

Unfortunately, it’s not just in P.E. class that it becomes evident which children are involved in a team sport or physical activity outside of school. In fact, a Georgia school that started a before-school fitness program found that children who walked for just 25-30 minutes not only participated more in class, they showed improved grades. Exercise can also improve self-esteem in children.  According to research published online in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, when 207 formerly inactive kids exercises for just 40 minutes a day, they reported less sadness and said they felt better about themselves.

Now we’re not suggesting you force your less active child into a team sport. We’re suggesting you take the time to find something that works specifically for them. That might involve a little pushing and strong encouragement, but it’s not about forcing them into something they don’t want to do. It’s important to find a physical activity that your child enjoys so that they will be more willing to make it habitual and carry the habit into adulthood. Fun, physical activities and mental stimulation in a supportive environment give children the sense they have achieved something new and challenging. They feel better. They feel happy. And will carry these early lessons into the rest of their lives.

In one of the comments on the article linked above a woman replied with gratitude to have been involved in a fitness routine from a young age. She sees it as a gift from her parents who taught her that being physically fit is crucial to a healthy life and how critical it is to learn the value of exercise at an early age. Now she’s passing this gift along to her children. If you didn’t receive this gift from your parents, you get to start the cycle. Start today.

If you have a child who’s not interested in team sports, there are other options! One sport that kids who are averse to team sports could try is fencing. It’s a great option because it is an individual sport in a team environment. Your child will join a club with clubmates and make new friends. At the same time, their fencing progress is their own. Plus, fencing isn’t catered to the big and strong kids, it’s more about technique, precision, and strategy.

At our club we’ve had many kids that came to us hating sports, and after trying fencing they fell in love with the sport. Children are drawn in to the uniqueness of the sport: the background of fencing with romance, sword fighting, and fantasy. It’s not only aerobic and mentally challenging, it also teaches discipline and accountability. In the club environment, your child will find plenty of opportunity to socialize.

All that said, it doesn’t have to be fencing. The end game is to find something that your child loves so they can acquire a lifelong habit of being physically active and thus enjoy a long and healthy life.