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Benefits of Exercise: Mental Toughness

by Sarah on October 17, 2010

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There are plenty of reasons to exercise – from better eyesight to brain health to heart health.  Not to mention that fine feeling of being fit and trim.


But as a parent there are some really extra-special benefits to getting your kids moving and moving with them.


Exercising together allows you to work with them on developing their will and emotional intelligence.


This morning my daughter plopped down on the couch across from her dad, her eyes still puffy with sleep.  Yesterday had been a full day of hiking, berry picking and swimming.  Today – breezy and blue-skied – we were gearing up for a run followed by a bike ride.  He could see the lethargy tugging her mouth into a slight grimace as he broached the subject of activity.


“You see, Hannah, being good at sports requires three things:  1. Physical ability; 2. Mental ability and what’s the third one?  Will.”


I watched as Hannah started chewing on this idea and in the process started to work away at the corners of mouth’s grimace.  We’d been watching Michael Irving’s reality show, 4th and Long, that challenged several would-be Dallas Cowboy football players to show that they had what it took to be on the team.  In the course of this conversation, my husband reminded her of watching the players wrestle with their own inertia and dig deep for the will power to go outside of their comfort zone.


After breakfast and chores, we hit the road – first a run and then a bike ride.  Hannah’s reluctance had transformed over the course of the morning into a fierce determination.  She powered ahead in her run and left me trailing her when it came to biking up one tough hill.


Later, standing around the kitchen refueling and enjoying the accomplishment, Hannah proudly declared how powerful she felt running.  And her younger brother chimed in with how he felt pumping over the hill.


What we saw, however, was so much more than just powerful runners and bikers.  We saw two young people who were gaining a sense of how much they can do.  How limits and barriers were starting to fade before them as they gained one of the most valuable things a child can gain:  Confidence and the ability to keep going when times are tough.


Life is not easy.  And while we work hard as parents to provide them security and comfort to allow them to grow up healthy and stable, the world outside will not coddle them.  Just the opposite. 


Sports, physical activities allow us to give them a taste of facing these challenges.  A taste of their own capacity to overcome and push forward.


When Hannah conquered that hill on the bike, when she moved past her initial fatigue, she found out she could go further.  She learned that she didn’t have to give up, settle for less.  That failure could be a temporary step towards accomplishing what she wanted to accomplish.


This is not a one-step one-talk process.  It’s cumulative.  Hannah and her dad have had many conversations.  Many times where she’s faced frustration.  Many times she’s felt like saying enough or giving up.


Her father has played this carefully.  He’s been careful to monitor when she needs to take a break.  He’s also challenged her to go out of her comfort zone.  And he shares her victories with her, reflecting on a good day’s work and accomplishment.


She’s learned a level of toughness that too many of us have to drum up when we’re adults and faced with higher stakes. 


And she’s been able to learn this in a safe environment.  Her parents there to push her a little and to help her recover.  We’re here to reflect with her as well and build each victory over doubt, reluctance, and fatigue into a strong understanding.


So when you consider the benefits of exercise, don’t lose sight of how it can be one of the best tools in your parenting kit.  The world is not easy out there.  With family fitness, we can help our children prepare themselves mentally to take on the real sporting event out there – life.

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  • Sean

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