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Encourage kids to shape up while emphasizing fun

GOOD NEWS: A RECENTLY reported 10-year study from the University of Massachusetts shows that American kids and teens are getting more exercise and (slightly) reducing their TV watching. 

Yet plenty of parents still need a crowbar to pry their kid’s hands from the Nintendo 3DS and the latest iteration of Donkey Kong. Despite the encouraging research, childhood obesity is still a significant health problem, and most adolescents are not meeting the recommendations for daily physical activity.

Scouting, like many other youth activities, builds health and fitness instruction right into the program. But what can parents do to encourage fitness outside of Scout meetings and weekend outings? Youth-fitness experts cite three effective strategies for parents and leaders:

1. Lead by example. Fit parents are more likely to have fit kids. According to the American Council on Exercise, in families with physically active parents, kids are more than three times more likely to be active than kids whose parents are not active. By contrast, studies by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry show that when one parent in a family is obese, there’s a 50 percent chance that their children will be obese; two obese parents raises the odds to 80 percent.

These stats don’t suggest that you have to participate in Ironman triathlons to set a good fitness example for your kids. Simply walking after dinner, riding a bicycle on the weekends and choosing an apple over a Pop-Tart are effective ways to model good fitness behavior for kids, especially those in their younger years.

2. Match kids’ interests with movement. “Parents need to find opportunities where fitness is the outcome, not the goal,” says David Jack, a fitness trainer and adviser for the International Youth Conditioning Association. Do that by observing what brings kids joy and try to find ways to build physical movement into those interests.

One parent noticed his son spent an inordinate amount of time looking at aircraft online and building paper airplanes. So he suggested that they build paper and balsa wood airplanes together and launch them from the top of the stadium stairs at a local high school football field. They spent an hour of fun running up and down the stairs to launch and retrieve the airplanes and got a great leg and cardio workout to boot.

3. Focus on play, not pushups. Some kids thrive in structured sports and exercise programs, while others shun skill-based activities because of performance anxiety or fear of not fitting into the group. “Free play is the only thing I’ve seen that works for everyone,” says neuroscientist Kwame Brown, Ph.D., who teaches active-play techniques to coaches and parents. Here are two games that fit Brown’s FUNction Method:

Kids love a time-based challenge, says Jack, who recommends building obstacle courses as a way to motivate kids to move more. Indoors, set up cardboard boxes to crawl through and a row of chairs to climb over. String a web of yarn to step through during a timed-race format. Outdoors, create a boot-camp-style fitness course of stations where kids must do a certain number of tasks for time, such as basketball tosses or calisthenics. “The perfect exercise,” Brown says, “is a rigorous activity in which kids lose all sense of time because it’s so much fun.”

If you have a crowd of kids, say, at a Cub pack meeting, try one of these classic camp games:

JEFF CSATARI is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Belly Off! Diet.