Exercising with my pre-teen?
May 15, 2013 4:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm a dad and my oldest - now a pre-teen, who this year started at high school - is always tired and hates exercise. She was very active when she was younger but pressures of long school hours and homework have squeezed all that out of the calendar. Plus of course she's the age when children's bodies dramatically change size and shape and that's perfectly normal. Given all that, what's the best way I can help her to stay as fit and healthy as possible? What has helped for your kids?

With a long journey to and from school, plus homework and music practice plus some clubs, there's not much time left for being active and healthy. What have you found has helped with your children? Something we can do together - whether it's changing our diet or adding in exercise - would be ideal.

We went out running together a couple of times (I'm not especially fit but I do run a couple of times a week) but she found it really hard and says she hated it. Any ideas for making it more fun / less intimidating?

She used to have swimming lessons and is a good swimmer but I don't think either of us much fancy the whole ploughing-up-and-down-the-pool-with-eveyone-else thing. Is there something different we could do?

We could go cycling but the drivers in our town aren't very considerate of adults on bikes and I'd be seriously worried about her inexperience + impatient or thoughtless idiot in a car ending up in an accident. There's nowhere very nearby for trail riding - we'd have to drive there, which would make it so much hassle that realistically, we'd just not do it. I'm not sure that's the answer either.

(Mum isn't very active and little brother is thin as a rake and muscly as a ... erm ... muscly thing from martial arts, so I'm not sure a Happy Family Activity would be the thing either - he'd just run rings round her and drive her mad!)

Thanks in advance for any ideas from more experienced parents. I'd love us to find something we could enjoy together.
posted by monster max to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (62 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about a Wii? You can do it together and it's pretty teen-proof...
posted by DarlingBri at 4:53 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have no parenting experience whatsoever, but I vaguely remember being a child. I much enjoyed going on walks with my dad. Besides being much less gruelling than running, this would provide the ideal opportunity for conversation.

Walking also gets a person's creativity going, I find. If you run out of topics of conversation, how about jointly creating the plot of your own novel or movie as you walk along. Or creating songs and lyrics, maybe. Could be a lot of fun, and it might take the edge off the "loathsome physical exercise" thing. Plus maybe you'll come up with a hit and make your fortune.
posted by Grunyon at 5:01 AM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

The Wii is a really good idea! There are a ton of games but if your daughter is into dance I bet she would love Just Dance. I was also going to suggest Zumba. I'll be honest, most of the classes I've gone to are mainly women, but there's always a few men sprinkled in, and they really enjoy it! Of course, it depends on whether or not you think your daughter would die of embarrassment to see you shaking it to Daddy Yankee. Or are there any good hikes you could do on the weekend nearby? I love to go hiking with my dad...
posted by luciernaga at 5:04 AM on May 15, 2013

What about skating?
posted by plonkee at 5:04 AM on May 15, 2013

I see tons of families at the rock climbing gym I go to. The kids seem to love it, and the parents do too. If you have one nearby, maybe give that a go?
posted by backwards guitar at 5:09 AM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Is she getting enough sleep? Teens need more than adults.

I always felt flattered when my dad let me help him with power tools...anything need fixing or repairing round your house? Stuff that builds skills also builds confidence. And is plenty physical.

You could also take an orienteering class together..lots of hiking and again, useful and interesting.
posted by emjaybee at 5:10 AM on May 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding walking. Walking is great. It's good exercise and you might find yourselves having some really good conversations when you're not facing each other. See if you can convince her that you need HER help to get into better shape.
posted by mareli at 5:11 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to love biking on trails with my dad when I was her age (I was way too skittish to ride in the street), and we had to drive pretty far to get there (30-45 minutes generally). It is a pretty big time commitment so it's not like we were doing this three times per week or anything, but it is so fun I'm glad we got to do it on the odd Sunday afternoon. It also made me more amenable to doing the activities that were "less fun" but way more convenient, like jogging near our house. As she progresses through high school, you can roll these trips into driving practice time for her, too.
posted by telegraph at 5:16 AM on May 15, 2013

Given all that, what's the best way I can help her to stay as fit and healthy as possible?

Whoa, hold up. I feel like this train is going off on a very, very wrong and potentially destructive track and we are ignoring the obvious.

It is not normal at all for a preteen to be so exhausted that she is "always tired" and can't bear to exercise. How old is she, 12?

It sounds like your daughter is under an amount of stress and strain that is extremely inappropriate for her age. If a 12 year old is that exhausted by everything on her plate, I think her parents need to do everything they can to ease that burden to the point where she's not exhausted like that anymore. This lifestyle that she is living sounds like the biggest impediment to her being fit and healthy, more than not wanting to run or whatever it is.

I think cajoling her to go distance running (!!) on top of everything else is the exact opposite of the right approach. I think that's not going to make her more healthy in this scenario, but rather less healthy. It's going to add to her burden. Putting her on a restrictive diet would be just as bad, in case there are any thoughts going in that direction.

If she was active before she was this busy, tired, and stressed out, then odds are if you can reduce her stress level, she will go back to the things she loved doing in the past.

So, solutions. Why does she have such long school hours? Can that be cut down at all? Why does she have such a long journey to and from school? If she's taking buses, is it possible for someone to drive her directly? What about the homework load. Can you get a tutor for her to help her with that burden? Or can you or your wife spend more time helping her?

Something that even many adults find hard to accept is that if your lifestyle is making you unhealthy, it's often better to change your lifestyle than to just try to cope with the problems it causes.

Now is a great opportunity for your daughter to learn that if your lifestyle is creating too much stress in your life, we can look for ways to reduce that stress while still having the life we want, and doing the things that we want to do. Too many adults have never been told that in their lives, so they just look for ways to cope around the stress, often in unhealthy ways.

I fear that if you just keep pushing her to exercise, rather than dealing with the root of the problem, her exhaustion caused by this lifestyle, you're going to turn exercise into something she thinks of as a chore and associates with pressure, guilt and shame.
posted by cairdeas at 5:21 AM on May 15, 2013 [50 favorites]

From your phrasing I'm going to guess that your daughter is getting a little chunky, and you're trying to work on some weight control.

If that's the case, please don't do that. If she even gets a whiff of a new exercise program because of her changing body, it will not do her any favors. The weight gain before a height spurt is completely normal.

With a long journey to and from school, plus homework and music practice plus some clubs, there's not much time left for being active and healthy.

That's what needs to change first. Instead of coming up with a family/daughter/group exercise plan, being healthy just needs to be incorporated into your daily life. You should never be too busy (sheesh, especially at 12) to get outside and have some fun. So also look at her schedule. Maybe she's just got too much going on.

I've got three kids (21, 19, 15) and what works for us is that being outside is the priority.

Whenever possible, we like to incorporate community into exercise, so my kids look for fundraising walks, runs and river cleanups, etc. And then we're in training for those events, so we slog through runs because we want to perform well.

In general, I ended up forcing my kids to be more active by having fun activity goals that we're training for. So for example, right now we're running, doing P90X and yoga because we have a Dirty Girl Mud Run, an Aids 5k run, a biking tour in Martha's Vineyard, a hiking weekend and a Charles River cleanup planned for the next few months.

These events are usually crazy fun. Your daughter can invite friends, there's usually some type of free goodies and music.

I think particularly at this age, exercising for health reasons is not very compelling, so you can sweeten the deal by thinking of yourselves as in training for events.

And to that end, you learn to eat like athletes and make healthy food choices.

But again, do not let this come off in any way that you've noticed she's gaining weight.
posted by kinetic at 5:31 AM on May 15, 2013 [21 favorites]

Less stress.
posted by amtho at 5:36 AM on May 15, 2013


Plus of course she's the age when children's bodies dramatically change size and shape and that's perfectly normal.

Here is how my brain automatically interpreted that sentence: "She's getting fat and I want to put the brakes on it."

Here's why I'm telling you this. I am a random stranger, an adult, who is not personally invested in this, and is not particularly sensitive about my weight. If my brain automatically interpreted this sentence in that way, I would wager that it will be a hundred times more so for your daughter. Not to be uncharitable because I think you really are trying to help her, but if my brain kind of interpreted the whole, very diplomatically and reasonably phrased question as "help me stop my daughter from getting chunkier, unlike my skinny muscular son," I think that is how your daughter will interpret this health and fitness project. It could be the source of a lot of resentment and backlash.
posted by cairdeas at 5:41 AM on May 15, 2013 [21 favorites]

If she's always tired, it might be worth making the first stop a doctor's office to see if there's anything medically wrong. If she's always inside, low Vitamin D could certainly cause fatigue, and I'm sure a doctor would have a bunch of other possibilities to check out.

Note: I am NOT suggesting this for weight control -- the evidence is generally pretty bad on starting pre-teens on diets or medical weight loss, etc. It's strictly to see if there's anything that's causing the fatigue. (Weighty Matters might be a good place to check if you want more info on that specifically -- it's written by a doctor and has a lot of discussion on the subjects of children, food, weight loss, etc.)

If it's not medical, then I agree it sounds like she's overscheduled.

When you took her running, were you running slowly enough for her? If she's trying to run as fast as you do to not disappoint you, but she isn't conditioned for it, I'm not surprised she wouldn't enjoy running. I didn't get into running until I gave myself permission to go as slow as I needed to, even if I was getting passed by dogwalkers.

When I was her age, we also did family canoeing, which might work (or kayaking or whatever) -- the bonus is that her brother could come along and canoe as well. Hiking and walking are also adaptable to multiple skill levels.
posted by pie ninja at 5:47 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Healthy females should have a decent percent of body fat (around 20% for child-bearing age) so that may be where your daughter's body is heading.

Your family should try eliminating processed food, eating fruits, veggies, yogurt, cheese, nuts, beans, milk, real bread, fish, poultry, meat..."real" food.

When I was that age, I liked yard games (volleyball. badminton, coquet, running through a sprinkler, mud puddles), tennis (in the street, just vollying), ball hockey (on grass or in the street) skating (rollerblades and ice) walking in the woods, casual bike rides, running around and goofing with friends, swimming, and dancing, usually to instructional videos (Daren's Dance Grooves!). I did not like excercise for excercise sake and still don't. It's just a matter of incorporating fun physical activities into daily life. Try only watching tv when there is actually something you want to watch, then watch only thath show, and turn off the box and go find something else to do. While watching tv you can do some fun little excercise gadget like an Indo Board. Encourage such fidgeting.
posted by WeekendJen at 5:58 AM on May 15, 2013

I am a woman who about twenty years ago was a preteen. I was a good student, involved in clubs, etc. I did swim for our swim team in the winter months, but that was about it as far as physical activity for me outside of gym class. I hate forced physical activity for the sake of physical activity. I despise it. That said, I always enjoyed vigorous walks and bike riding and swimming for fun. But some times of year make that harder to do than others.

What I remember very clearly from that time was being tired all the time. I remember keenly getting home at 6 or 7 in the evening. Having dinner. Then starting homework. And finishing all my homework for my six or seven classes by 11 or 12. Then I'd get up at 6 the next morning and do it all over again. I was by no means an overachiever. But that's what happened. My homework increased immensely between elementary and middle school and extra curriculars went later into the day.

I didn't get nearly enough sleep again until I went to high school where we had block scheduling --- four periods/day year round --- three classes, one study hall, change over of classes at the mid year --- and my homework went down, even though I was involved in more time intensive activities, I had a lot more energy because I had so much more time. I had more breaks in my day so I was able to unwind at night more easily. I got, most of the time, better sleep than I ever did in middle school.

I'm hesitant to say what is going on with your daughter is much different. And if she is at that point in her development, do not discount how exhausting having a period can be.

What I suggest is look first to what is making her tired and why. Help her with time management skills and understanding how she can't do everything so what is a priority right now and what will be priority in two months. Make sure she is getting enough sleep.

If she's always tired (like I was from about age 12-14), a lack of physical activity isn't necessarily the reason for it. In fact, it's probably not at all the reason for it. It wasn't for me.
posted by zizzle at 6:00 AM on May 15, 2013 [13 favorites]

If she even gets a whiff of a new exercise program because of her changing body, it will not do her any favors.

Seconding this, hard. For most girls, this is the age when they first become aware of how their bodies take up physical space, and what they look like compared to their peers', and all the ways in which they fail to measure up. This is the time where they transition from children's clothes, which are sized approximately according to age and height, to juniors'/women's sizes, which might as well be your Designated Fat Number as far as the middle-school mindset goes. And if she's started menstruating, well, the thing they teach in sex ed is "you need a certain percentage of body fat to menstruate," which means Period = Fat. I was a stocky girl in middle/high school and remember the body angst all too well. Prioritize her self-esteem over her weight; the weight is easier to fix down the line.

And if she is a little heavy, keep in mind that not only does she have some growing left to do, but she still has years to get active. She may discover she loves exercise at eighteen, or twenty-five.

In that light, here's what I'd recommend: present physical activity as an option whenever you can. But only an option; don't wheedle or look disappointed if she doesn't want to go hiking with the family. But keep presenting things like that, because they're fun and feel good, not because they're virtuous or an obligation. People, especially kids and teenagers, are more likely to choose the fun thing over the good-for-you thing.

Also, if she's constantly tired, take that seriously as a separate thing. She could be overstressed or not getting quality sleep. It's not necessarily abnormal or alarming - I went through a snoozy couple years and turned out okay - but it's worth keeping an eye on.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:00 AM on May 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

Your heart is in the right place, but I think rather than working out with dad, she might be encouraged to doing a team sport or an activity with people her own age. She doesn't have to be a super athlete to get the benefits of regular exercise, and team sports is a great experience, esp. for girls ( Please don't tear me apart and recite your horror stories of being picked on in gym--some things have changed.)
A team need not be a school team. If she's rather not do that, then look for a sport or activity that's not judged subjectively, as gymnastics or figure skating are. She might like yoga, Pilates, martial arts Zumba, etc.. These are very good for getting comfortable with her body, help with coordination, and so on. Running might be your thing, but not hers.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:02 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Getting your pre-teen daughter fit and healthy and figuring out how to get her to exercise with you are not the same thing. At 12, she is smart enough to figure out that you're trying to get her to exercise, rather than hanging out and incidentally exercising. Nothing personal, but that's the human experience; when our bodies start changing rapidly, everything is weird and confusing and it's usually a lot easier on our brains to seek out the path of least resistance.

Above posters are correct in trying to figure out whether she has too much going on in her life. Take an inventory of what she's up to, and ask her whether she still wants to do it. Maybe she's really done playing violin. Respect that. Maybe her English class is too hard, drop to regular instead of honors.

But in specific answer to your question of something you can enjoy together, look into Geocaching. It's something you can do together, but once she is more independent, she can do it alone, too, or with friends. Same with specific road races/walks; a Color Run, Mud Run, or charity event is something she can do with you or together as a family, but later on, she could feasibly do it on her own or with her own friends.
posted by juniperesque at 6:04 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does she play any actual sports? Like, team sports?

I say this as someone who was, and is, absolutely crap at sport: it's still a great thing to do at that age. When I was at school, everyone played a team sport (basketball, netball, hockey, whatever). If you sucked at it, you just played in the lowest team, but it was a social thing and between training and playing it was great for fitness.

What are the other clubs she's in? Could one of them be swapped out for a sport?
posted by Salamander at 6:04 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to pile on, but seriously, as a person who went from being a relatively skinny and athletic kid to a chubby preteen/teen, I am begging you not to try pushing her into anything. My (arguably) well-meaning father has given me a lot of hangups about my weight by encouraging me to "be fit" and exercise more and "take better care of [myself]", and I, at 32, have yet to forgive him. I also have yet to forget that he'd like me more and thinks I'd be a better person if I were thinner and more attractive.

If you're set on doing this, I'd suggest asking her to do something you enjoy (seconding canoeing, or maybe hiking+camping), and presenting it as a fun thing you could do together. If she says no, or if she hates it, then drop it. Asking 'hey, I'm doing [x], would you like to come with me' is cool, but if she says no, say that the invitation's always open, and then head off. Pushing her into exercising can serve to turn her against it entirely, viewing it as an unenjoyable, misery-inducing thing that she's forced to do, like going to the dentist or studying calculus, and it sets her up for a lifetime of hating exercise.

My experience has been that it's pretty normal for people, especially girls, to go through an extended period of inactivity in their tweens/teens, and despite this, most of them go on to be relatively healthy adults. Being an adolescent girl is a really difficult thing--it's exhausting, and your body feels like something foreign, something that you can't trust anymore. I mean, come on, it does what? And you feel how crappy while that's happening? And there are all these weird bumps and aches and things, and... It's scary and weird, and pushing yourself to do physical things that require you to trust your body and/or will put you in a position where others are looking at your body and its capabilities can be abjectly horrifying.

Also, if you think that there's any chance--at all--that she might have mental health issues, please drop this entirely until you've seen a qualified professional and had those dealt with. This level of exhaustion may or may not be typical for a girl her age, but this level of stress definitely is not. Having a therapist helping her through things could make a big difference to her overall well being, not just her weight.
posted by MeghanC at 6:10 AM on May 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

She's a good swimmer, but laps really are boring. Maybe she would like water polo? Diving? Lifeguard training? Surfing? Playing Marco Polo or tag with her brother in the pool?

There are plenty of games she can play with her brother even if he is more fit. Space to explore with other kids will naturally turn into some kind of social exercise that is meaningful to the kids involved. What active stuff do her friends do? If some of her friends are hanging out at the skate park or exploring the woods or playing team sports, try to get her involved in those things too.

You seem to have focused on individual cardio only, and it sounds like your daughter hates that. Lifting and moving heavy things might be a more empowering way to get active. You could set up some silly feats of strength to try to do as a family, like pushing a car together or demolishing something with a sledgehammer. This is a good website.
posted by steinwald at 6:13 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agree with everyone else that this is a fine line to walk. I think that your goal should be to find something physical that you two can do together for the rest of your lives as a bonding experience. My father did this with my brothers with golf and it has been a huge success.

Some activities that might fit the bill are:
- hiking/backpacking
- golf
- fencing
- kayaking/canoeing, etc.

Your goal should be to spend time together and have something that is just yours to do together. IMHO, the best thing you can do as a father is never ever discuss your daughter's weight or body composition. I still shudder when I think about how I was described as "big" by my dad as a preteen (I was really tall). Unfortunately, because in many ways growing up as a girl sucks, your daughter is already aware of her body, how it compares to her friends and celebrities, and probably is familiar with a few crazy diet plans. When you described her being tired, one of the first things that jumped out is that perhaps she's not eating enough because she's trying to lose weight and is self-conscious.

If you are also concerned about food, I would focus on making sure that you as a family are eating healthy by trying something like cutting out processed foods or eating more fruit. This will benefit your whole family, including your son. I read a study recently that it's people with a fast metabolism in their teens and 20s have the hardest time adjusting when their metabolism slows down in their 30s and 40s.

Best of luck! You sound like you have good intentions.
posted by JuliaKM at 6:27 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

(Mum isn't very active and little brother is thin as a rake and muscly as a ... erm ... muscly thing from martial arts, so I'm not sure a Happy Family Activity would be the thing either - he'd just run rings round her and drive her mad!)

As "the fat kid" in my family (and I wasn't fat at all, I just had skinny siblings), I find myself responding to this quite emotionally. Please, please don't be the dad who pretends to be generally interested in everyone's fitness but only devises a fitness plan for your daughter. There is nothing wrong with getting more active as a family, sharing family activities with no goal other than to get some fresh air together and enjoy each other's company. If your goal is anything other than that, then just please don't. She knows you think she's fat. She knows you're watching how much physical activity she's getting up to. She's getting more self-conscious by the day, and it's not because she's a teenager and it's not because she's interested in boys. It's because she's not safe at home to veg out and relax and be herself.

I have always believed myself to be fat because my parents tried to help me get fit in various ways. I look at pictures from that time now and see a girl who was fit, and healthy, and looked pretty much like most kids in my class. But when I went home I was the fat kid. And you know what? I am now, actually, the fat mom.

she found it really hard and says she hated it. Any ideas for making it more fun / less intimidating?

posted by headnsouth at 6:32 AM on May 15, 2013 [15 favorites]

I know that your daughter isn't me, and you are not my dad, but I'd like to share this with you because I think my experience is relevant.

When I was a preteen and young teen, I had that typical weight gain, thought I was horribly fat, felt super uncoordinated in my "new" body, and also just wasn't interested in sports or exercise. My dad saw that I wasn't getting much physical activity, and tried to encourage me to exercise in various ways: taking me to his gym, taking me on bike rides, etc. But I interpreted all of it as: you are so fat, I'm embarrassed by it. From other sources (mostly outside of my family) I had learned to associate exercise with hating and punishing my body for not being thin enough. I didn't naturally love to be physically active, so why else would I exercise except to punish myself?

So. I'm positive that my dad wanted the best for me and wanted to help me build healthy habits, and I'm also positive that what he did didn't work. (I want to emphasize that I hit the jackpot, dad-wise: he's always been loving and involved and supportive and awesome. This was much more about the social messages I was hearing about women's bodies than it was about anything my dad got wrong.)

I'd ease off the exercise-specific activities for a while and focus on non-sedentary activities the two of you can do together. A few suggestions come to mind, depending on your daughter's interests:
  • Nature or street photography--go for hikes or walks together, take cool pictures.
  • Walking tours of your city, if she's interested in history/pop culture/art/architecture/etc. and you live in an area that has walking tours. Alternatively: the two of you could create a tour together, with a plan of taking out-of-town friends and relatives on the route when they visit.
  • Try canoeing or kayaking if you live near a river.
  • Build something together--a pizza oven or fire pit in the backyard? a project for something like Habitat for Humanity? furniture?
It is really, really easy for a non-athletically inclined teen girl to get the message that exercise is a necessary evil for making one's body look socially acceptable. This is a miserable and unsustainable approach to both exercise and self-image. Your daughter will be much better off if she can learn to think of exercise as either something fun in itself (i.e., hiking, canoeing) or as something that helps her to do more of the things she enjoys (i.e., improve strength so that she can do more/cooler building projects).
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:45 AM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your job is to provide her with safe, structured opportunities for activity. Her job is to take it from there and do as much or as little as she wants. Also known as the division of responsibility in activity:
"Crossing the lines of the division of responsibility is likely to create problems with movement and distort growth. Trying to control whether, how much or the way a child moves or how his body turns out crosses the lines. So does catering to a child's expectation that he will be endlessly entertained."
As a parent you set up the structure and opportunity for movement - you provide a safe place or safe equipment (bike, helmet, etc.) for play; you also sign up for family activities, or set particular times when you will go to the park/pool/skating rink/miniature golf/bowling alley/whatever...and then you do nothing else but require her to come along and be polite. She needs to figure out what she enjoys and how much/at what intensity feels right to her.
posted by Ouisch at 6:51 AM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was just like your daughter. I would have been crushed if my father had tried to get me to go "running". Because I hated running and it would have disappointed him. I LOVED swimming but we could only swim in the summer. I did take lifeguard training and became a lifeguard.

I think you should try harder to find a way you can swim together. But like others have said - after you de-stress her schedule.

I would have loved to "train" for a community marathon fundraiser with my father. But only if we walked it.

My father took us snow sledding several times a winter. That was so fun. Walking with him in the winter was fun because the big boots and the snow slowed him down and I could keep up better.

We also went bowling a couple times - that was fun. I feel like you are thinking you want her to train for a triathalon where we are saying just moving around, like lazy bowling fun, should be sufficient to keep her healthy.

Is there a place you can only get to by climbing stairs? For example, a restaurant that is on an upper floor and then you take the stairs and when you get there you have a healthy food reward?
posted by cda at 6:55 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

My dad would take us out to our 100 acres of La wilderness and set us free. I had certain natural boundaries that I wasn't allowed to cross but otherwise, I was on my own. I hiked for hours. I loved the independence and freedom. When we were at home, I was allowed to ride my bike to the local library, once again, on my own.
I've done the same thing for years with my now 15 year old son. He is allowed to go to the local Subway, Fire station (he's a volunteer), and church, so long as he walks there. He enjoys it so much that he now volunteers to pick up our medication at the local pharmacy because he can walk there, on his own, and feel that independence.
Walking with her would be great, if you both have the time. If you do it enough she may be able to work up to running. You could also invite your wife to walk with you, as a romantic gesture. If both parents are active, the kids naturally follow.
posted by myselfasme at 6:56 AM on May 15, 2013

I agree a hundred percent with cairdeas and the others asking you to consider backing off this kid with any implicit messages about her body. Should not be coming from a parent at all.

My suggestion would be to consider getting a family dog and fully commit to being great dog owners who love and play with and weekend-hike with and daily walk their dog. Get a sweet, friendly adult dog from the shelter. But given that, let the kids pick the actual dog they bond to at the shelter. Your dog will get everyone walking and running and throwing things, and more, is a living shot of serotonin.
posted by third rail at 7:05 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I feel like we should give the OP the benefit of the doubt...clearly he doesn't WANT to be the dad who lays a heavy trip on his daughter.

Somewhat parallel situation here, except that your daughter is probably 100 times more fit and athletic than I was at the same age. My mother is pretty sedentary (though that is changing now that 60 has just happened!). My dad is a natural athlete (plus, being my stepdad, he was only in his 30s when I was in high school). No siblings (on that side).

No, you don't want to make her miserable. But I could have used even MORE opportunities to enjoy exercise, because I hated it then and it took me 20 years to equate it with something other than suffering. When I think, for example, of how much better my mental health might have been in college and my early 20s if I had had an exercise habit... If you can do it without being a jerk, you are doing both kids a huge favor by helping them lay the foundations. IMHO.

People mentioned walking. Dad and I used to love walking the dog at that age. We were in South Texas. There are only so many months out of the year we can walk outside! So surely you can find some time in a less tropical clime.

At her age, I had outgrown my kid's bike. I had an adult size 3-speed bike from age 11 or so, but this bike lived at my father and stepmother's house. When I expressed an interest in riding a bike (our streets were also dangerous...this was in a very limited context), it was naturally Dad's job to find me a new one. I said a 3-speed would be fine, like the one I already had at the other house. No, no, no, he said, and took me to the bike shop to get a Trek 700 that was actually easy and fun to ride. Now. We were lucky to just be able to go in and lay down money for a new bike. But you could take it upon yourself (if she doesn't already have one) to find a good secondhand bike and clean it up. Think about some safe routes to get to parks and such. Frankly, I walked the bike across a busy street, then rode across some parking lots and stuff, to get to a cross-country trail at a local college. It wasn't "biking," but I enjoyed it. Dad also made sure that I had a pair of bike shorts, a helmet, etc. (no, you don't need expensive bike shorts...I mean something so I wasn't riding in jeans in August).

Dad and I also loved to swim. Swimming is, as you can imagine, a major commandment in S. Texas. Pool access was a problem. There were some favors that we could call in, but it was not a regular thing. We spent many afternoons in the summer thinking about possible ways to get into a pool. If you have the option of just buying a pool membership, perhaps at a public pool, so that she can go anytime, with or without you, then do that. My dad and stepmother, on the other hand, had a pool in their subdivision. It was FANTASTIC. I was never the Seventeen magazine type, I was embarrassed in a swimsuit, but believe me, I took my copy of Seventeen and got on the above-mentioned 3-speed and rode over and swam all day.

Does there now exist a family gym membership? My parents belonged to a gym at the time, and I was always curious, but it was a major chunk of change to get a separate membership for me, so we didn't. Weight training, for example, is something to get into that doesn't require a lot of athletic skill.

Is there an exercise bike or similar at your house? Again, secondhand is cheap. Put it where a TV is and make it clear that anyone can use it. That way, if she wants to use it, she can do it without the direct scrutiny (however loving) of Mom and Dad. At my dad and stepmother's house, not my primary residence, they had an exercise bike that I DEFINITELY used when I was over. It was in their bedroom, so I could sweat and stuff while watching TV but NOT while being watched by the rest of the family.

My stepdad (unlike, say, my mom) never made me feel bad about myself in re: exercise or body image or similar. I'm not sure how he did it. Probably just a relaxed personality. And he also made it clear that a person doesn't have to be a natural athlete in order to enjoy and benefit.

So what I'm saying is create the opportunities. Then maybe back off a little so that she can avail herself of them when and if she chooses. Good luck!
posted by skbw at 7:19 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

OK, so the root of weight control is calories in versus calories out, but our bodies aren't perfectly efficient, and it isn't really possible to get a perfectly accurate measure of either calories in or out (unless you are hooked up to sensors measuring your CO2 output). Plus, people have a natural psychological/physiological response to compensate for energy burned by consuming more fuel or giving themselves a "reward." Therefore, I think the best plan for a healthy attitude to weight is to separate food from fitness.

Weight is gained or lost in the kitchen; the goal of exercise is fitness. Exercise should be something you do because it is fun, because it feels good. Do not complicate it with anything else that will mix it up with guilt or shame or negative thinking. I know society sends messages that weight loss is tied to exercise, e.g. "Do these simple exercises to melt fat off your thighs!" That is all BS pushed by people who want to sell something. (Also, spot weight reduction is a straight-up lie.) The best thing you could do relative to exercise is to impart some healthy skepticism about those types of messages, because they are truly evil. Exercise should be something you do because it is fun, because it feels good. Period. Hell, you don't even have to call it exercise. Preteen is still young enough for "playing," though the window on that is probably closing fast.

So I would focus on improving family diet. This situation is complicated because kids need caloric surplus (and lots of sleep) to grow. Plus, your daughter is at the age when she will pick up any subtext to a change in family diet. I would not announce anything like "we are going to eat healthier," because kids will easily read into that "you weren't eating well before and it shows." I'm also not going to start a debate on what is a healthy diet, because that's a contentious subject in itself and you probably don't need to make any drastic, obvious changes.

Basically, make more vegetables and have less simple sugars. Maybe less starchy carbs like pasta, if that's a big part of your meals, but don't sweat it. Fats are a necessary macronutrient, so don't cut down on them too much, especially stuff like olive oil. I've known people who have "dessert" with every meal — a cookie, ice cream after dinner, whatever — so if that's your family, just stop buying that stuff at the store. And that's it. Don't make a big deal out it, because eating shouldn't be stressful either.
posted by stopgap at 7:34 AM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another point to consider is that that weight gain and lack of sleep are not unrelated. So nthing everybody who's suggested looking at her schedule and commitments. Involve her in this process - she probably doesn't enjoy feeling tired all the time. So get her to review her schedule with you. The aim is to identify a few activities that can be parked for the time being so she has more time to relax and to sleep. But she needs to be involved in that process. Accept that her priorities may be different from yours and that she may want to keep doing something that would be top of your list of things for her to stop. That's fine. Help her identify what things have to happen (school), what she enjoys so much it should happen and what she could take or leave. They are the things that should go.

Once you've implemented that she may start to feel more energetic and want to be more active herself, without prompting from you. At that point ask her if there's anything she'd like to explore more. If she's interested look at her schedule again to see how it can fit, what may have to go to make time for it. You don't just want to fill her schedule right up again. But it's a good habit to review your own schedule regularly anyway to make sure it works for you so teach her to do that.

Finally, if your family eats a lot of processed food and/or eats out a lot get everybody onto a more healthy diet. Even if your son is skinny he still doesn't get to eat junk at home, if everybody else gets to eat only fruit and veg. He can eat junk at his friends' houses or eating out. Spend time shopping together and teaching both your children about food and how to prepare it.

When I went to university I lived in halls of residence that were not catered. And it was astonishing how many of my flatmates could not even cook a simple meal. We (the ones who could cook) actually converted one of the girls in my flat from ready meals to cooking simply meals on a consistent basis. What did it for her was actually how much cheaper it was to cook from scratch, not health or taste.

So if you want to set them up for long-term health teach them how to feed themselves. If they are reluctant you could build in a reward - by eating less processed food and by eating out less we are saving x amount of money each month. Let's spend that on [fun day trip/activity/place we all love to visit] each month.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:46 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Find out what she likes to do. Does she like ball sports? If so, you could shoot hoops or play catch or kick a soccer ball. Does she like net sports? If so you could try ping-pong, tennis, badmitten, etc. Or as someone else suggested, roller skating, roller blading, or ice skating. There's probably some sport she would enjoy. But if not, maybe hiking.
posted by Dansaman at 8:18 AM on May 15, 2013

I have a very simple prescription for you. Go buy one of those 'soft bounce' exercise rebounders, the mini trampolines. Then, you set aside some time in the day, perhaps right after school when she may be tired, or in the morning, and then set a timer and insist she bounce for 20 minutes.

She can watch a video or whatever, listen to music, who cares. Force her to bounce. If she bounces 20 minutes a day, seven days a week, for a year, she will be in pretty good shape.
posted by jalitt at 8:19 AM on May 15, 2013

set a timer and insist she bounce for 20 minutes

WTF. Don't do this.
posted by stopgap at 8:22 AM on May 15, 2013 [39 favorites]

Forgetting exercise for a moment. Some other ideas: how about the entire family takes a cooking class together? Do you grocery shop/go to Farmer's Markets as a family?

Like others note above, it's crazy how few kids know how to cook. And I'm definitely a lazy mom in some ways, but man, my kids love grocery shopping and cooking. I've got pictures of the kids as toddlers completely spread out on the kitchen floor putting together giant Dagwood sandwiches. And my 15 year old has just learned to grill and this past weekend perfected his tofuburger recipe (for the record, a lot of pickles and ketchup helped get it down).

When we food shop, they're "allowed" to pick out a new thing to try: star fruit, pomegranates, lobsters, oysters, plantains. They talk to farmers. I can't tell you how much they've learned about bees and apples. They search for recipes and make their new food thing and damn if they aren't proud of themselves.

And for the love of all that is good and holy, do not force her to exercise, period.
posted by kinetic at 8:39 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Has she been to a doctor lately? Her fatigue could be from anything like low iron, low vitamin D, not enough sleep, too much stress or poor nutrition.
posted by hooray at 8:39 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you take walks after dinner? My in-laws eat dinner at the table, we clear the table and put dishes in the dishwasher together, then we take the dogs for a short walk. Love the evening walk. It's a time to talk, be outside, see neighbors, see the neighborhood.

Is she involved in meal prep? Is that something that interests her? Is she on Pinterest? Pinterest is huge on food and meals. If she's interested in cooking, she is definitely old enough to help with meal prep and maybe even meal planning. What does she eat for lunch? Does she buy it at school or bring it from home? Can you work together on something she can bring to school, whether that's leftovers or something snack-y to include in her lunch?

I love running but I know it's not for everyone. I actually got into running as a freshman in high school. If she was interested in running, I'd try a run-walk program (run a minute, walk 2 minutes; run 1 minute, walk 1 minute; run around the block, walk part-way around the block or some variation). I run but even now, I usually run for 5 minutes and walk for a minute because I tell myself that no matter how tired I am, I can run for 5 minutes, even if I have to go very slowly. It also reduces the risk of soreness and injury while building confidence by breaking the run into smaller, more easily digestible pieces. Maybe your daughter can't run three miles right now. She can probably run for a minute or maybe even 5. Going from not running to running three miles can be hard but going from running for one minute to 5 minutes and so on is a lot easier.

The thing I loved about running when I was 14 was that I could see myself improve. The first time I ran, I couldn't run the whole way. Later in cross country season, I could finish the run. Eventually I could even gossip on the way back. It was very rewarding. Do you have any idea why she hates running? The answer will affect how you should proceed, whether it's that she's out of breath, sore, just hates it, is bored, etc. Also, if she wants to run on a regular basis, she should be fitted for running sneakers. The crappy sneakers I wore when I would hide in the back of gym class would not cut it.

Do you have a YMCA nearby? Can you go maybe twice a week as a family for something? Brother could run on the treadmill 90 miles an hour or lift weights, mom could listen to a podcast and use the elliptical, you two could take classes, walk on a treadmill, play basketball, etc. I'd encourage your daughter, if she was interested, to check out classes like pilates, yoga, spinning, Zumba. I love Zumba. I also love yoga because part of it is about loving and appreciating your body for what it can do right now - not when you lose 10 lbs., not yesterday when you could do all of the poses perfectly, but right now. I wish I had started taking it when I was in high school. Pilates is very trendy now. Spinning is hard but the people who love it are really devoted.

What do her friends do? Can you facilitate them working out together? I'm very social and I used to do karate. One of the reasons I kept going was because I felt like that's where my friends were.

When she's trying something new, I'd also remind her that everything is hard at first. If you keep at most things, they get easier and more enjoyable. And if not, you can always try something else.

Does she have work-out clothes that she likes? This sounds so superficial but I am definitely more excited about working out when I have something cute to wear. Especially when you're a kid - I definitely realized freshman year of high school that I was the only kid wearing a rad Batman t-shirt at cross country practice. Target has cute workout stuff and it's cheap. Make sure she has some workout clothes to start with that she likes (shorts, shirt, sports bra) and go from there.

Bottom line: give her lots of opportunities to try different things and see what she likes and when she finds something, encourage her to stick with it.
posted by kat518 at 8:42 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have fun doing stuff. Walking and Wii are good suggestions. Hiking. Frisbee golf. Playing catch in the yard.

My Dad used to take us for "walks" which were more like forced marches when I was a pre-teen. And he made lots of comments about my weight. I still have a lot of hang ups about my weight and my body 20 years later. And it took me about that long to enjoy exercising. Don't do that to your daughter.
posted by backwords at 8:44 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Being a 12 year old girl is pretty tough.

When I was a kid, my parents took me hiking a lot. Sometimes we took our bikes to a local bike trail (yes, we'd drive) on the weekends. I never thought my parents were trying to make me exercise, I thought it was just something fun my family did together. Encourage her to do the things she likes doing. If she likes swimming, look into swim lessons or a swim club.

Also, when I think about being 12 years old again, part of the reason I would have absolutely hated going running with my dad is that I would be so self-conscious that other kids from the neighborhood would see me and I would be so horribly embarrassed! Also, periods. If she has started hers yet, it can take a while to figure out how to uh, properly protect yourself. When you're young it can be way less predictable, you don't know how to deal with your body yet, and it can all be a horribly embarrassing thing. Just speaking from my person experience, when I was 12 and might have meant "A bike ride sounds great dad, but I'm not feeling up to it today because I have my period and am tired and don't know how to deal with tampons yet" but it might have come out "BIKES ARE STUPID AND BORING AND I HATE YOU!"
posted by inertia at 8:48 AM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

While I see the point that some folks are making about not pushing her because of the weird changes our bodies/minds goes through as teens, I don't see anything wrong with suggesting opportunities for trying to be more active. For some of us this doesn't come naturally. Even if you have to drive somewhere to bike, making that once a month trip IS worthwhile because it's getting her on that bike - who knows, years from now she could be somewhere that has more accessible bike paths and because you took her those few times, she decides to pick it up again because of those past experiences.

In my experience my parents offered a gamut of things for me to do as a kid and teen - from gymnastics, soccer, cycling, hiking, skiing. A lot of those fell off the radar during my later teen and college years when I became very sedentary because of my studies, but now as an adult these are the things I tap back into for exercise and fun. I am grateful for the opportunities my parents provided and I think it's a good thing that you're doing here, so long as you let her decide which opportunities she likes and wants to follow through on. If she doesn't stick with something, try not to be disappointed - years from now she could come back to it!
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 8:50 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a woman. I was overweight as a preteen/teenager. I complained of being tired all the time. I was your daughter in a lot of ways. I feel for you, but I also feel for her.

My parents tried to "encourage" me to be more active, but most of their encouragment came off as judgement. When you're 12 it is easy to take a lot of what your parents say/do the wrong way. Plus, I was feeling self conscious already, and their transparent efforts to get me to be more heathly made me feel even worse about myself. They weren't setting up "workout calendars" for my two older sisters. They weren't commenting on what my sisters ate. They weren't going on to my sisters about being healthy and nutrition and portion sizes. I may have been a kid but I wasn't stupid. I felt very much targeted. I felt like a failure and more and more down on myself because my parents were doing SO MUCH to try to deal with my weight. For many years I felt very much like a disappointment to my parents, especially my father. It also all felt very unfair because they were overweight themselves, so it all felt hypocritical.

The only things they did that I ever enjoyed were things that they did WITH me. Dad and I would go for a walk together sometimes, and I remember those walks even now. Sometimes we'd go crosscountry skiing.

My suggestion is that any encouragement or meal changes you want to make, you have it be for the WHOLE FAMILY. Don't make it about her, make it about all of you. She isn't stupid, and she'll be less likely to feel attacked and flawed if any changes made are for everyone. Have more family outings that are activity centered. Reduce/Eliminate TV and computer time as a household.

Also, like others have said, maybe look at her schedule. Talk to her and see which activities that she is doing she actually enjoys. If she isn't excited for one of them then talk about removing it. Focus on the activities that she wants to do, instead of the activities that you think she should do. Try to find ways to relieve some of the pressure from her. She sounds incredibly busy and stressed, and that is an unhealthy expectation to teach her. You don't want her to not learn a healthy work/play balance, and just because an activity is after school does not necessarily make it "play". People, especially kids, need some unstructured time in the day/week to just do whatever. Free time is important. Does she have any?

Short aside:
In my mid 20s I, all on my own, discovered a love of activity. I joined a gym more or less spur of the moment, and just decided to go for it. I went from zero activity couch potato to becoming basically a gym rat and very fitness oriented. I did not make this discovery until my father STOPPED expressing concern over my weight. This wasn't a conscious thing, but rather an observation after the fact. I don't consider myself a passive aggressive person, I don't think it was being done to spite him. I just internalized all his concern and opinion and advice and that turned in to more eating and less energy and more weigh gain.

FWIW Looking back I know that all my parents' efforts to get me to be more active/healthy were done out of concern and love. Even now when my dad makes some comment on my weight loss and health I know it is because he is concerned and loves me. It still hurts though. I still have a lot of baggage around this.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:11 AM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I seem to remember reading that during the middle school years (and maybe high school too?) kids bodies change sleep schedule, in a way that is horribly misaligned with school hours. OK, a quick google and here's one link discussing the issue.

So, maybe this is less about adding another activity into her schedule, and more about trying to reduce activities so she isn't tired all the time. How about sitting down with her some time, when she's looking really tired and overloaded, and might be feeling grumpy about all the homework. Say to her that you are worried she has too much to do all the time, and doesn't get enough time to relax or sleep. Don't offer an immediate suggestion of what she has too much of (homework, clubs etc), but leave it completely open and ask her, does she feel the same way? What does she wish she could cut back on? She might say homework, or she might suggest an activity or club, or she might say travel time. Try and be completely open-ended with your question so that she can tell you what she wants to cut back on (even if its impractical), just so you understand and hear her side of things. Then suggest you work together to try and fix the problem, assuming she thinks its a problem too.

If you can reduce her stress, she may well feel rested and recharged, and then start looking for another activity to do. I agree with others upthread that a family activity would be better than targeting her for something. How about geocaching or something that involves walking, but with a purpose.
posted by Joh at 9:15 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

One other thing that falls under "kids aren't stupid":
My parents also tried to do these joint activites and everyone have goals or whatever. I remember at one point my mom and I became treadmill buddies of such, and we had a calendar where we each would put a mark on it if we walked on the treadmill that day. It was something we worked together on, and while we both were doing it I enjoyed it and kept at it. Then mom stopped doing it, stopped putting marks on the calendar. I was still expected to keep going on my own though. It was clear to me that once they felt I was "in the groove" I would keep doing it on my own. I felt tricked. I stopped walking on the treadmill. I also remember times when the household would adopt a new healthier meal plan. We'd all commit to eating healthily etc. But like the treadmill everyone else dropped out and I was the only one who was expected to keep up with it. Again, I felt tricked and targeted.

So if you DO attempt to address healthiness as a family/household effort, don't single her out as the only person the new rule/expectation applies to. Don't be willing to bend/adapt the rules for one person but not her. Kids aren't dumb. They see through stuff like that. Either it applies to everyone or it doesn't.

(seriously, I feel for you. I know you are concerned, and with cause, but this is a hugely sensitive and tricky issue that can potentially be a big hit with long term effects for her. I really applaud you for being sensitive to that fact and trying to find a way to deal with it without making her feel bad about herself.)
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:38 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

One more thing. As an adult she will be able to take control of her own exercise and food routines.
What is much harder to change, for a woman, than one's weight: that weird ineffable feeling of looking at yourself and your body from the outside, that awareness that somehow the boys you know seem to go through the world looking *out* from their own eyes instead of having that double vision all the time -- that sense of both looking out at things and also always looking back at yourself from an imaginary outside perspective.
GIrls are sensitive in ways that even adult women, who have gotten used to the whole thing, often forget. Do not do anything, even with the best of intentions, that makes a girl scrutinize her own body. The world will do that to her well enough. At home we should gaze at our daughters in a blur of their general soul awesomeness. Even if, especially if, they are "chunky."
posted by third rail at 9:39 AM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm going to start with the actual answer to your question. Which is what kind of exercise to do together. Running was too hard because running is too hard for most people who don't usually run. Walking is good. Walking, actually is great. In fact, 1/2 hour a day is fantastic for preventing all kinds of things, and reversing things that have actually gone awry. This is great news for both of you. 1/2 hour a day might be taking the same route every time. It might mean striking out in a different direction. It might mean any number of things. But if you honestly cannot find 1/2 hour every single day to spend alone with your kid, please re-evaluate your life, and hers. Because a healthy lifestyle is not about running running twice a week. It's about making choices about how our lives fit together.

So. Now to address a few things that seem like things that might fall into the unknown unknown category made famous by Mr Rumsfeld.

If she's always tired, it might be worth making the first stop a doctor's office to see if there's anything medically wrong.

Absolutely, take her to the doctor before you begin any exercise plan. That is actually standard advice about exercise. But please don't phrase it this way "medically wrong." Instead, this might (MIGHT!) be a good time for her to switch from pediatric doctor to adult doctor.

And this doctor change is much more fraught than just how to get your daughter to keep you company while you get in better shape. Please phrase it like that. Do Not, as other have said, make this about her changing body. Why is it more fraught? Because 12 is a pretty ok time to start visiting the gynecologist. Not necessarily for the pelvic exam part right away, but just to talk to the doctor and make sure she's comfortable with the place where she'll go to get the pelvic and pap etc etc. That she has a safe place she can ask about STDs and birth control. And that she has veto power over this doctor on some things if she's not comfortable. (And please be the cool parent who says, "Whenever you need to go to this doctor, go, have them send me the bill. I won't ask any questions if you don't want to talk about it." She needs an adult she trusts to navigate these issues of her health and body and sex. Don't freak out if it's not you. Ok, fine. Freak out. But don't let her see it.)
posted by bilabial at 10:00 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Since a lot of folks have mentioned their experiences as kids with parents who wanted them to lose weight, I'll mention that it wasn't exactly a picnic being the "skinny" sibling either.

My brother and I did karate together which helped me go from overweight in grade school to a relatively slim by the time I started high school. My brother, however, didn't really lose weight. My father actually asked me why my brother wasn't losing weight and told me that I needed to help him more. My sisters and brother resented me for being thin. My sister asked if she could follow me around for a day, doing what I did and eating what I ate. She wasn't and isn't overweight - she just has a full face and hips. In terms of family dynamics, when I started gaining weight, I actually worried, I won't be the skinny one anymore.

I never learned healthy habits because my parents just assumed that since I was slimmer, I would just stay that way. I didn't know about eating healthy besides what I learned in school, which was easy to ignore when I could eat whatever I wanted and still be a size 0.

I don't claim that my experience was harder than that of my brother who got notes sent home from school saying, your son is fat (so helpful, school). I am saying that however you handle this, it can affect both of your children, even if you don't mean for it to happen.
posted by kat518 at 10:36 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your daughter sounds like me at that age - the main cause for me was hypothyroidism which is easy to test for. I also agree with the chorus on stress reduction, enough sleep, and no body policing and exercise pressure.
posted by meijusa at 11:03 AM on May 15, 2013

Best answer: It's not horrible to be concerned about your daughter's weight. If she becomes significantly overweight, that could really affect how others treat her. So I understand your concern. But have you set up a healthy environment for her to grow up in? Is your house full of fake food, or do you cook balanced meals from scratch? Is your home life focused around sedentary activity, or do you all regularly get out and about? Do you talk as a family about how you handle your stress -- do you meditate together, or do yoga, or free-write, or talk things out together? Do you all participate in service to others so your life has a larger purpose? Whatever you choose to do, make it a group effort to get the whole family healthier and happier, and you all will benefit. But single her out as a problem that needs improvement, and you will make whatever stress she is feeling much, much worse.

Exercise will not affect her weight much -- more than anything, eating will. Clean up your whole family's diet for the sake of your health, and play together (not jogging, which is tedious and torturous for the out-of-shape). Play together outside, as a family, as often as you can, whether it's walking, playing soccer, geocaching, bike-riding, whatever. That will help with stress, as would having her cut back on her schedule.

Get her checked for depression. Talk to her, be a friend. I seriously doubt at her age you can change her weight much, if that's your concern (which it seems to be). But being a pre-teen is a hellish, hellish time for many, if not most girls. Focus on helping your daughter learn how to manage her stress and how to be happy. The rest will follow.
posted by ravioli at 11:40 AM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just have to second ravioli's suggestion of geochaching. I don't do it but I have friends who do it and think it is absolutely awesome and fun. Modern day treasuring hunting, often with the extra bonus of a hike/pretty walk/exploration. Brilliant family activity. And who cares if her brother is more fit than she is. In geocaching it isn't a race.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:44 AM on May 15, 2013

Put me down as another constantly tired pre-teen girl with an overpacked schedule who put on a fair amount of weight after puberty. My mother decided to deal with this by roping me into going to the gym with her and other activities that she enjoyed but I hated and it made me hugely, hugely resentful-- even now, many years later I hate the gym with a passion. It really made me push back against any and all of her attempts to encourage healthy living, including stuff I would've been more open to hearing if my weight hadn't become such a contentious issue.

Have you asked her what (if anything) she thinks the problem is and what she wants to do about it? Is it the sleep, her schedule, her diet, her weight? Let her identify the issue and potential solutions-- she's old enough that she probably craves the chance to take the lead on this issue rather than have her parents define it. I know the only point at which I was purely motivated on my own to exercise is when I decided I wanted to work on my arm tone-- my mom showed me some exercises and I did them every day for months without outside encouragement.

I'd drop the push for father/daughter exercises for now, or at least be conscientious about mixing up invites to go on a walk with exercise-neutral activities. Other posters are correct in that she will start to notice (if she hasn't already) that dad wanting to hang out one-on-one = covert attempts to make me exercise = dad must think I'm gross because I'm fat and she'll just pull away altogether. I would also rethink the plausibility of whole family activities. If anything, leaving her mom and brother out raises some problematic questions-- why doesn't mom have to be active? why doesn't my brother have to come running too? -- which will only highlight the unfairness of being coerced into exercise when everyone else gets to do whatever they want.
posted by fox problems at 12:22 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am an obese adult, at your daughters age I started to get some curves and change shape and my mother freaked out about me getting "fat", putting me on diets and arranging a lot of exercise based activities just for me as My brother, her and my father were all skinny as rakes. I ended up coming out of puberty figuring I was a fatty so why bother exercising or eating right there was no end of it, and being fat became my identity and man eating and getting fat pissed her off and shut her up trying to get me all fit and healthy. Funny thing is if you go back through the photos of me at the time when she started being concerned about my weight, I look the same as all the other kids my age, except for my string bean family.

Do sports, or go for walks with your daughter because you love her and want to spend time with her and you are positive you can make it clear that is the ONLY reason. Do outdoorsy family activities because you like doing them and do them as a whole family. Be very careful what you say to your daughter. Maybe work on cutting back her schedule, eating better as a whole family and making sure she is getting enough sleep, once kids hit puberty their whole sleep schedule goes out the window as their brains rewire.
posted by wwax at 1:28 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ooof. So tough! I always think that if I could go back to my 11 year old self and tell her two things, they would be "start exercising now and never stop," followed by "learn to play bass." I like to believe my life would be completely different if I had done those things.

But instead, I developed a perverse resistance to everything physical. It was a combination of intense pubescent embarrassment (GINORMOUS TITTIEZ do not lend themselves easily to jogging) and a subconscious backlash to my mom's perpetual eating disorder/exercise bulimia. Complicated stuff, but probably not that much different in degree from the things swirling around in any 12 year old female brain right now.

Luckily, I am a vegetable fiend and have, until recently, enjoyed a pretty decent diet without much hardship. This meant that instead of getting quite overweight with my inactivity, I stayed mostly at a healthy weight (until I discovered booze, at which point I became a bit rounder, until finally at 27 I discovered exercise again).

Other people have mentioned this, but there's no way that a really healthy family diet could be a bad thing. Just don't keep crap in the house, cook good veggie-heavy meals (for EVERYONE, as again, people above have mentioned), and take lots of walks together.

Oh, and don't lie, and don't use euphemisms like "changing bodies" or whatnot. But if your kid asks what the fuck is up with all this zucchini, you can say something like: "Well sweetie, it's really hard to get into good habits with food, but it's really important, so your mom and I are going to try and set better examples for you kids."
posted by like_a_friend at 3:07 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, re: tired? It takes a fuckload of energy to gear up for pubescence. And holy shit, those first three or four years of periods are exhausting. I mean, sure, get her worked up by a doc in case of anything like thyroid issues or whatnot, but dude. I was 12 once and sometimes I think I AM STILL TIRED FROM IT.
posted by like_a_friend at 3:12 PM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am baffled how we got from the OP's desire to encourage healthy lifelong habits in his daughter to a discussion about all of the ways in which weight control in teenagers is traumatising. The OP did not mention weight.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:22 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

OP did mention weight - his son's thin and muscular weight - as a contrast to the daughter and a reason the son would not be a good activity parter for the daughter.

But if OP is not thinking about the daughter's weight / keeping her weight down, that would be a good clarification to make.
posted by cairdeas at 3:33 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

DarlingBri, I think it is two things:

1) because many of us remembered our parents saying "your body is changing, you need to develop healthy habits", and instead we HEARD "OMG fat fat fat fat for christ's sake look at those giant breasts would you please go jogging?" Because that is what the entire rest of the world was telling us, we could barely stand to look at ourselves in a mirror, and we didn't see why our parents could possibly mean anything less horrible. (Sometimes our parents did not actually mean anything less horrible. But the OP does, so that's not relevant.)

2) Weight and body issues were at the root of many of our past resistance to physical activity. We are trying to offer some perspective on why the OP's kid might be loath to jog.

People aren't scolding the OP, but merely alerting him to the giant minefield he is potentially about to enter with his daughter.
posted by like_a_friend at 3:53 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh my life!

Thank you for all of these responses. Some lovely suggestions here for (a) things to do together (b) important things to be aware of - like what she needs is more sleep and fun and NOT a well-meaning father giving her a complex about not being as skinny as her brother, (c) some great ideas about things she could have a try at that she might enjoy and (d) some tactful comments about giving her space.

Perhaps some less helpful comments about giving kids hang-ups about their weight (I did my best to make the original question not about that, because I really don't think that's the point here) but their tone, I do think the people who made those comments did so because they were trying to be helpful, and for that I'm grateful.

You've given me a lot to think about so thank you for that. I will Tread Very Carefully and we'll see where that leads. I love the comments about healthier eating benefiting the whole family (yes! yes!) and about finding ways to all play (PLAY not exercise) together. Oh, and the "in training for X" and then doing something active to raise money for a charity or work on an environmental project? What a - genuinely - great idea for something we'd enjoy doing together!

Do please check back on this post in a few months - I'll post something about how we get on. Thank you, friends. Thank you.
posted by monster max at 4:03 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, OP has heard you, send non-question-answers to email/MeMail and keep them out of this thread please.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:07 PM on May 15, 2013

I shall attempt to actually answer your question and assume that as a parent, you have the best insight into your family. I am not nor was ever a teenage girl, but some physical activities I really enjoyed doing with my parents included:

1) Gardening. It is a powerful feeling to create something beautiful and watch it mature over several months. Weeding and digging garden beds can be seriously hard work but I always found it very satsifying (still do, in fact). More complex gardening projects also give you a huge range of different activity. Likewise, I didn't like it, but I did like the money that my parents paid me for lawn mowing.

2) Walking, exploring nature etc. I grew up in the country, so the bush was omnipresent and I loved going on bushwalks and doing the same when we went on camping trips. I really enjoy nature, however so YMMV.

3) This might sound ridiculously childish, but I really enjoyed (enjoy) playing catch, it's really fun! It's especially fun when you go to a big oval and get a frisbee, or even better one of those ring-like frisbees that you can throw and they go a really really long way. Fun. This was probably my favourite activity.

4) Competitive games like squash, tennis etc were fun with dad. It was fun feeling my ability at them getting better and better until dad didn't need to "Fake" it any more and we were having a real competition. Obviously, this took years.

5) Weights This could be more a guy thing. Liked doing it with dad, made me feel "manly", fun seeing strength improve, "spotting" each other, etc.

6) I never went to a climbing gym with Dad (bit too old for them to have been widely available). I would have enjoyed that a lot, too.

You sound like a good dad, best of luck.
posted by smoke at 4:14 PM on May 15, 2013

A final word on changing the family diet - eating healthily now will be important for your son later in life too, even if he is wiry at the age of 10-ish. My brother started really growing around that age, and got in the habit of being on the vacuum-cleaner diet, sucking up blocks of cheese, cake, hot dogs, everything in sight. Despite his insane food intake he was tall, muscular and lean with low body fat until around 20-ish when he stopped growing upwards. Then he started growing out, and put on a ton of weight in a short time, like 40 or 50 pounds. I think it was difficult for him to get used to feeling satisfied without having eaten a TON of food at a sitting. His diet was also close to 100% junk food, and I think it's hard to get used to retraining your taste buds after all that time.

I think your daughter will definitely be more receptive if she sees you being just as concerned about healthy eating by someone who is already thin.
posted by cairdeas at 4:49 PM on May 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Do the same thing you (probably) did when you were teaching her how to eat: Expose her to a large variety of healthful things prepared a few different ways each and encourage trying small bites just to see if she likes it. Realize that everybody has different taste and hates one or more foods in particular. Assume she knows her own appetite better than you do. And while you wouldn't let her eat a steady diet of ice cream, don't fret too much when a growing person is just in a cheerios phase of life; having eaten broccoli and yogurt before, she will be more likely to incorporate it into their diet as she matures. All of this metaphorically speaking, of course.

I wish my physical education at this age had emphasized incremental improvement and training plans rather than the poor fitness base I started from, had developed proficiency and confidence in my practice of solitary forms of exercise that most common in my daily lifestyle, and had helped me understand that most people can do nearly any exercise that appeals to them with relatively easy adjustments to form, clothing, environment, duration, intensity, competitive atmosphere, etc.
posted by zizania at 7:41 PM on May 15, 2013

Poster wrote in comment #3496454">> about finding ways to all play (PLAY not exercise) together. Oh, and the "in training for X" and then doing something active to raise money for a charity or work on an environmental project? What a - genuinely - great idea for something we'd enjoy doing together!

Ohhh, this is the best response I think I've ever seen in a thread about how to encourage someone else toward exercise and fitness, I'm so happy to see it.

Yes yes yes, playing rather than exercising! Yes, do almost any activity based on shared interests together, it doesn't need to be exercise-y to be enough exercise. Also, yeah, I also started getting bouts of being utterly exhausted at that age. I don't know if it was hormones or stress or existential angst or sleep patterns, or, most likely, some combination of this and more, but energy levels do wacky things in adolescence.

I saw you trying really hard to make this about health and not looks and to be sensitive about it. And I was a scrawny kid, myself, but even still was all queued up to echo that "she's getting chubby and I want to help nip that in the bud" came right through as a thought. Bravo to you for not digging your heels in but instead using the reactions here for Good.
posted by desuetude at 11:57 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

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