Healthy Habits for Toddlers and Moms, More Active Together


Active toddlers and moms reinforce each other in forming form healthy habits for active lifestyle, which set the pattern for later life. A recently released study in the UK followed 554 mothers and their four-year-old children, each fitted with heart monitors, at rest and on the move for a week, including swimming in the pool. The study finds that for each additional ten minutes the mother exercises, the child exercises one additional minute. The conclusion: mothers and their young children seem to egg each other on to be more active.

These finding are crucial to understanding how good and bad habits of activity are established in the social relationships of the family. Daily activity within the family can turn towards more sedentary or more active lifestyles. Children are not naturally active, but encouraging them to engage in activity with a parent creates a pattern of good association. Mothers of young children are similarly at the threshold of establishing healthy or unhealthy habits that may well persist. Experts call attention to the patterns of weight gain in pregnancy and then subsequently because of mothers’ sedentary lifestyle with small children. Mother and child are in a complex feedback loop.  As one increases activity level the other does as well. As with many habits of health and motivation, there is another feedback loop whereby more activity produces mood enhancement and in turn creates more activity. In the magic spaces of the brain, stimulation offers greater receptivity to stimulation. Exercise produces all sorts of feelings of contentment, which are connected to seratonin and other neurotransmitters. Anxiety symptoms disappear with activated chemistry that transmits neural activity, including that linked to exercise.

Parents love to go for walks with children, especially younger ones. In areas where there is easy access to safe outdoor places for play and exercise, obstacles to a more active lifestyle are reduced. Children who are 5-18 years old optimally need to be active for an hour a day while the recommended level for adults is 2.5 hours a week. Healthy habits for toddlers and their moms include being more active together.

Even more significant benefits comes with activity that includes dogs and the great outdoors. Interactions with pets provide emotional and physical soothing, reduce stress and lower blood pressure. As spring comes, the opportunities to be active outdoors increase. Spending time in nature enhances mental health for children who have an “innate affinity” for the natural world; the presence of nearby nature enhances children’s resilience and capacity to cope with stress and adversity.” Nancy Wells, PhD., a professor of environmental psychology at Cornell University studied 337 school children in upstate New York and found significant benefit for them, especially for those already facing a significant level of stress.

Biophilia, the love of nature, characterizes the deep attachment humans have for the natural world. Studies show just how essential outdoor activities are for the developing mind. Children walking with dogs and parents outdoors in nature can be pure joy for all. The dog and the child take the parent for a walk. The healthy habits of moms pay off for children and vice versa, and together they are inclined to be more active.

Commentary by Lawrence Shapiro

American Psychological Association
Environment and Behavior
The Bark