If you find that communicating with your children isn’t easy when they are engrossed in texting, Wii, the internet or the TV, you’re not alone. With far too many distractions in the house and the car, why not try luring them outdoors for a run? Assuming you have banned headphones, you will then have their undivided attention for the next half hour or so.
HARMONY AT HOME
As well as being a bit of nice bonding time, the aerobic exercise will boost everyone’s mood, so that it’s mostly harmony (rather than teenage surliness and adult impatience) reigning in the home. That’s the theory, anyway! But for many parents, it rings true… and the experts agree.
‘Regular aerobic exercise has very positive psychological effects for young people and adults,’ confirms Stuart Biddle, professor of physical activity and health at Loughborough University, who specialises in children’s exercise. ‘It definitely improves mood. Evidence shows that children also have much better cognitive functioning after exercise – their attention levels and alertness are much higher.’
Family running is also a great example to set. You are showing your children that exercise is something sociable and (hopefully) fun. ‘Running with your children or competing in fun runs with them is good role-modelling,’ says Stuart. ‘It makes sense that if children see their parents being active, it gives them the confidence to be active.’
Even if your children refuse to run with you, if they see you disappearing off in your sports kit and running shoes three times a week, it will have a positive effect. ‘If your child always sees you sitting on the sofa and driving everywhere, they will think that’s normal,’ warns Stuart. ‘Research shows that if parents watch a lot of TV, the children do too.’
BORN TO RUN
Almost as soon as we can walk, we will be running – even if it’s just across the lounge! So there really isn’t an age that’s too young for a child to be running – the question is what is interesting to them. Younger children might find the idea of a one-mile run boring, but will probably love charging around the woods looking for fairies.
It’s no surprise that children love to run, because it aids their growth. ‘Weight-bearing exercise is essential for young children, to promote bone-mineral density,’ says Mark De Ste Croix, professor of paediatric sport and exercise at the University of Gloucestershire.
GETT THE BALANCE RIGHT
So, just how much and how far should children be running? Is there a risk of overdoing it at a young age? ‘There is growing evidence that even high-intensity exercise can help bone density,’ says Mark. ‘This is especially important for young girls, to try to reduce the effects of osteoporosis in later life. However, we also know that chronic high-intensity loading can cause overtraining in elite youths and increases the risk of overuse injuries.’
All that taken into account, bringing a ten-year-old out on a short run once a week is great. ‘Of course, children mature at different rates, but most pre-puberty children have the capacity to run long distances,’ says Mark. ‘Their VO2 is equivalent to adults, so from a cardiovascular perspective, a young child could run four miles. However, in prepubertal children (of around 11 and 12), undertaking distance running to train for a half/full marathon can put them at the risks associated with overtraining. As a child progresses through maturation (11-14 for girls and 12-16 for boys), there will be an increase in stature, stride, muscle mass and power.’
Around puberty, they will start overtaking you! ‘Children tend to have quicker oxygen uptake than adults and so do not do much work anaerobically,’ says Mark. ‘This means they don’t produce as much lactic acid as adults, which contributes to muscle fatigue.’ So, as they hit their teens, prepare to start hearing someone up ahead calling out, ‘Come on, Mum!’
Novelist Polly Williams, 42, lives in Oxfordshire and runs with her sons, 11-year-old Oscar and seven-year-old Jago
‘I first took Oscar running two years ago – he’d been cooped up and restless at home all day, so I decided to take him with me on my run. This virtually involved a cattle prod, but I succeeded in getting him out the door and we haven’t looked back since.
‘Now we run together once a week and it’s very much our bonding time. I am always amazed at how differently we communicate when we’re in our running shoes out
in the fresh air – gone are the monosyllabic answers and shrugs. Without the distraction of telly, homework or siblings, he’s much more chatty. We talk about all sorts of things. Boys like indirect communication – talking while doing something else. It takes the pressure off.
‘Oscar is now a faster runner than me and is often the one to suggest the run. Jago is keen too, but I take them out separately, so they each get some one-on-one time. I’ve not been overtaken by Jago yet, but I’m sure I will.’
Polly’s latest novel is Husband, Missing (£6.99, Headline Review)