Are fitness trackers for kids a positive trend and is it a good thing to measure their activity levels?
As the school year winds down and summer vacation begins, kids’ daily routines come to a screeching halt. Whether it’s sleep away camp, vacation with the whole family, or hanging out in the neighborhood, the everyday structure of school is gone until September. In many ways this is great. It gives kids time to be kids, creating more opportunities for free play and creative freedom. But without the regularly scheduled activities, after school sports, and PE classes, how can you tell if your children are getting enough physical activity? Fitness trackers for kids may be the simplest solution.
Many estimates say that about one in five Americans now own some sort of fitness tracker. Whether it’s a dedicated band, heart rate monitor, or built in phone app, many of us are curious and committed to measuring our fitness data. And while adults have clearly embraced the trend of fitness tracking, the phenomenon has carried over to kids as well. And I’m thrilled.
I haven’t always been a fan of tracking kids’ fitness. First, I think we often track the wrong things. If we tell kids to focus on numbers on a scale or calories consumed, it can create an unhealthy relationship with body weight. Targeting weight loss numbers as opposed to creating behavioral goals, do very little to change the process or create lasting healthy habits.
Second it’s hard to watch kids playing in a park or read books like John J. Ratey’s Spark or Stuart Brown’s Play and not feel inspired to find more play opportunities for your kids… and yourself. By quantifying activity, it can feel like it somehow takes takes away from the romantic idea of completely free play.
Fortunately, newer fitness trackers for kids have created a happy compromise for both of my concerns. There are great ways to use them to your advantage to help kids achieve behavioral goals without impeding the natural process of play. So what are the best ways to use them?
Getting Kids Interested in Fitness Trackers
Getting kids to use fitness tracker is the easiest part. Kids like to be timed, measured, and tracked. Even using a simple pedometer to count steps turns an everyday activity into a game and games are inherently fun. If you frame the use of an fitness tracker as a fun activity rather than a required exercise, kids will be quick to embrace it.
While some of the more advanced activity trackers measure things like heart rate and sleep patterns, most just keep track of steps, distance traveled and flights of stairs climbed. Setting goals around steps usually is the best strategy.
So, how many steps should kids aim for? The standard recommendation for adults is 10,000 steps or more each day. But depending on age and current activity levels, kids can vary much more than adults in how many steps they should be targeting. Finding a baseline is the easiest way to come up with an appropriate number. Have them wear the tracker for three days (or more) and find out what their average step count is, then target incremental increases. If your child is getting an average of 7,000 steps a day, challenge them to get more than 7,500 for five days in a row. Each time they hit a new benchmark, add on another 100-500 steps.
A lot of fitness trackers for kids now automatically feed data into a phone or computer, making the tracking process super simple. But whether or not your tracker has this capability, letting kids manually record their scores can be a great exercise. Giving them something as simple as a calendar or sticker chart to visualize their progress can be motivating and give kids a sense of autonomy. If you want to get really creative, find a pack with a few different types of stickers and use certain ones to signify certain accomplishments. If they reach their baseline, e.g. 9,000 steps, they get to use a regular smiley face sticker. If they go over, e.g. 12,000 use a different one. And if they set a new personal record, have a special type of sticker ready (think bigger, fuzzier, shinier). For kids who have outgrown the motivation of stickers, just create a simple chart or graph so they can still see their progress.
For lots of kids, just the process of tracking steps and activity alone will make it fun. But for those who need a little more of a push, setting up a reward system can be a great tool. You can use daily goals to earn things like video game time or dibs on the front seat. Or, use weekly or monthly goals to achieve bigger milestones. E.g. 20 days in a row with 15,000 steps earns a trip to the water park. It’s best not to use food as a reward for any goals, but setting up markers so kids can track their progress and have a tangible reward can be a big motivator.
Getting the Whole Family Involved
Fitness and nutrition goals are always easier when everyone around you is on board. When it comes to activity trackers it’s no different. To get the entire family involved, set up competitions based on who can get the most steps or how many times you beat your own record in a month. Better yet, come up with a goal of total combined steps between everyone in the family and take a fun outing as a reward when you all reach the milestone together.
When it comes to trackers, there are lots of options. In addition to Fitbits and Jawbones, brands like Nike and Under Armour now have their own as well. Plus, some companies like KidFit, LeapFrog and Ibitz create trackers geared specifically towards kids. No matter which technology you choose, letting kids track their fitness and set corresponding goals is a great way to keep them active during the unstructured summer months, or any other time during the year. While free play for kids will always be one of the best, most important components of development, harnessing this technology can be a huge boost in keeping them up and active.
Steve Ettinger is a kids fitness expert and children’s book author. He travels around the country speaking at school about fitness and making workout videos for kids. Learn more at www.SteveEttinger.com