Move over, Mom: Dads can play a big role in kids’ fitness and health

Ottawa gym co-owner Paul Tremblay makes sure to include his son Félix in physical activities.

Courtesy Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay has been bringing his son Félix to his Ottawa gym since the toddler was just a day old.

Mr. Tremblay, co-owner of CrossFit NCR, believes you have to lead by example on the health and fitness front, especially with your children, so the fitness facility offers child-friendly programs.

Félix, who will be two years old in September, is also in organized soccer and swimming with other children his age.

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Last November, the proud dad and competitive CrossFit athlete even posted an Instagram video showing his then year-old son on a rowing machine – with adult supervision of course – and it has garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

“I worked out in the garage the day I brought him home from the hospital. I put him in his bucket seat and he watched me work out,” says Mr. Tremblay. He and his wife will celebrate this Father’s Day with Félix and his little brother George, who was born May 11.

Much of the research into what it takes to raise active children focuses on mothers, but there is growing research involving men and their impact on the health and activity habits of their youngsters, says Leigh Vanderloo, a Toronto-based exercise scientist with Participaction, a national non-profit organization that promotes healthy living.

A couple of studies involving mice suggest a direction for further research, though it is too early to say whether they apply to people.

One study, by André Fischer and colleagues at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, was published in April in the Nature International Journal of Science. The research, titled “Why fit fathers sire smarter offspring,” involved housing male mice either in regular cages, or ones outfitted with toys and running wheels. The offspring of mice in the “enriched environments” ended up doing better in learning, memory and cognitive tests.

Félix Tremblay, Ottawa gym co-owner Paul Tremblay’s son, on a rowing machine.

Courtesy Paul Tremblay

In July, 2013, another study found that the offspring of obese male mice had a higher risk of developing metabolic diseases such as diabetes. “If these findings hold true in humans, then a father’s diet and body composition at the time of conception is likely to affect his future child’s health and risk of lifelong disease,” said Tod Fullston, one of the University of Adelaide scientists involved in the research published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

When it comes to children’s health and fitness habits, to what extent are they nature versus nurture? From a scientific standpoint, nothing is conclusive. But parenting with fitness in mind can make a difference.

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“I’ve watched my parents live that healthy lifestyle my whole life. The example my mom showed me at a young age is, ‘Hey, it’s late, the sun’s going down, but I’m still going out on that run.’ I want to take what she showed me and bring it to my kids. My dad was definitely active although he worked a lot … he encouraged me in every sport and let me do every sport possible, but he also had a twist to it, saying that it was just a game and just do it to stay fit, and never take it too seriously.

“My parents still come to my competitions and I’m 31 years old,” Mr. Tremblay says about his passion for CrossFit, an intense program that incorporates elements of various sports and exercise.

Ms. Vanderloo, also a research fellow at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, says there is established research showing “more active parents have more active kids.

“For children and youth, their parents are their main sources of influence – they really do everything their parents do.”

But, she adds: “Most of the research to date has looked at maternal influence – how mothers act … because moms are still more traditionally thought of as the primary caretakers. And that maternal influence not only has an important impact on helping kids become more active, but also supports positive relationships between active fathers and their kids. If [dads are] more engaged in a sport, then the kids may be more inclined to take up that sport.”

One British study, which was conducted over four months starting in January, 2012, involved interviewing mothers at primary schools in and around Bristol about their perceptions of the roles fathers play in their children’s physical activity. Published in 2015 in the peer-reviewed BMC Pediatrics journal, the research concluded that dads play a key role in promoting their children’s physical activity, including influencing what type they get involved in and how often. Some ways dads could support getting children active include acting as role models, such as exercising and playing sport themselves, and also participating with their youngsters, the paper said.

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In Canada, the percentage of overweight or obese children and adults has risen steadily over the past 40 years, according to research in one of Statistics Canada’s Health Reports, released in June, 2017.

Among children, about a third are overweight or obese, and only about 10 per cent meet the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day – factors that could set them up for both health problems (including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes) and emotional issues (such as low self-esteem, depression, and worries about being judged and bullied). However, another of the three Health Reports studies also found parents can be important motivators. In fact, “a child’s level of physical activity rises by 5 to 10 minutes for every 20-minute increase in the physical activity of a parent.”

For families under a time crunch, “I try to encourage the importance of choosing activities as a family,” says Ms. Vanderloo. “A lot of families might watch a TV show or movie together after dinner, but before you do that, schedule that 10- to 15-minute walk every day or every other day after dinner first. It’s an opportunity to [establish] something you do as a family, and the kids will pick up on this.”

Mr. Tremblay says keeping up his CrossFit training regimen while working and being a hands-on dad “is definitely a bit of a challenge. Your priorities change when you become a parent.

“But I will always find time in that 24-hour day to do my workout. And it doesn’t need to be that two-hour gym session – it can be a 15-minute thing, a 20-minute thing that you can do at home. It won’t necessarily give you that elite level of fitness, but it will keep you sane and your body moving.”

And when it comes to encouraging his kids, he says he’ll emphasize, as his parents did, that you “play the game not necessarily to win, but if you like it and enjoy it. That’ll make you happy – it’s about the psychological benefits of exercise.”

This article originally appeared here via Google News