Junior School

This section is adapted from the Runner's World Complete Book of Women's Running by Dagny Scott. Buy this book!

The Right Start

When should you encourage your child to become active? The earlier the better. A 1989 study showed that if a girl does not participate in sports by the time she is 10 years old, there is only a 10 per cent chance that she will be active in athletics when she is 25.

This may be changing slowly with the greater numbers of women discovering sports and the greater acceptance of older women in sports. But clearly, the earlier your daughter becomes active, the better off she is physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Physical activity for children needn’t be—shouldn’t be—structured until they are at least in secondary school. Instead, sports should remain play. That way, it becomes a regular part of daily life.

Here are some ways to incorporate healthy pastimes into your child’s routine as she grows.

The Preschool Years

  • Play outdoors. It’s important to get your child into this habit early on. Setting this pattern early might help to avoid a video-game habit later. Be creative with the type of activities that you prescribe.
  • Encourage natural child’s play. Child’s play is, after all, pretty much running around.
  • Engage in low-key contests. A backyard can be the perfect training ground for building lifelong active habits and sportsmanship. Races, tag, ball games—just about any outdoor activity that entails moving around is all the running that a young child needs.
  • Play with your children. Ask them to teach you the outdoor games that they play in school. Invite their friends over in order to have a baseball or touch football game.
  • Begin lessons if your child wishes. Let your children participate in organized league sports or lessons if they wish, but don’t force them. At this point, it’s best to let them choose the sport.

Secondary School

  • Combine sports with community work. Encourage your child to walk a race for charity, earning money from sponsors in your neighborhood.
  • Let your child join a sports club or team. A team atmosphere will help to develop cooperation and sportsmanship. At this age, children are old enough to handle greater training structure and competition.
  • Continue to encourage healthy pastimes.
  • Fight the video habit with active family recreation. Teens enjoy fun activities such as swimming and Frisbee throwing without even realizing that they are getting exercise.
  • In addition to encouraging your children to be active, there are things you can do to make sure that they get off to the right start.
  • Here are some tips to make sure that your own behavior is supportive of physical activity:
  • Be a good role model. Experts say that one of the best ways you can ensure that your children get exercise is by setting a good example. Seeing you include running, cycling, or walking in your day will help your children think of physical activity as the norm.
  • Provide positive feedback. Negative criticism can turn your child off to sports altogether.
  • Listen to your child. If he or she is feeling pressured, take action by talking to the coach, switching to a league with a different emphasis, trying a new sport, or making sure that you are available to offer support and guidance.

The Shift to Competition

There is no magic age when your child can or should start focusing exclusively on training for one sport. Most experts, however, recommend that you keep your children involved in a variety of activities for as long as possible. This keeps things fun and prevents boredom. It also helps children to develop a variety of skills at an age when they are most easily able to learn.

Runners especially, Dr. Bar-Or points out, can be “born” at any age. Unlike gymnastics and figure skating, which require specific skill development at an early age, running does not need to be mastered early and does not require early specialization for later success.

If your child wishes to concentrate solely on running—or on another sport—follow these guidelines to ensure that he or she will have a positive experience.

Get her involved in numerous athletic events. Most coaches agree that, even if your child shows talent, you shouldn’t focus exclusively on running too early on. Standout runners of all ages have “disappeared” after promising high school or college careers, quitting the sport altogether or never living up to early expectations.

The syndrome is referred to as burnout, and it’s all too common in an intense sport such as running. What has happened to these promising youngsters? They have exhausted themselves prematurely—sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, often both.

Life benefits...

Beyond the obvious physical impact, girls in particular benefit from physical activity in ways that can affect the rest of their lives. According to the Women's Sports Foundation in New York, girls who participate in athletics are:

  • less likely to become involved with drugs
  • less likely to engage in sexual activity
  • less likely to get pregnant
  • more likely to graduate from high school and college
  • more likely to have higher than average grades

"Girls who do sports are able to look at their bodies in a different way," says Lynn Jaffee of the Melpomene Institute, which specializes in girls’ and women's health.

"Instead of viewing it as a question of How thin am I? or How pretty am I? it's, How strong am I? How fast am I? They view the body as a competent thing rather than only as an object of attractiveness."

Those benefits continue beyond the teen years. The Women’s Sports Foundation also reports that women who participated in sports as girls demonstrate higher than average confidence, self-esteem, and pride in their physical appearance. They are also less likely to suffer from depression.

This section is adapted from the Runner's World Complete Book of Women's Running by Dagny Scott. Buy this book!