Turns out, healthy habits really are in your genes. Find out why, plus tips on how to break any bad habits your parents passed down
DNA aside, you pick up a lot from your parents. Besides the language you speak and the type of milk you drink (skim? Gross), experts say your exercise habits may owe much to the example set by your ’rents when you were a kid.
Children who have active parents tend to be more active themselves, says Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and family medicine at Duke University. In particular, your mom’s physical activity levels may have played an outsize role in your desire to run around as a tot, suggests a study from the journal Pediatrics.
Why does this matter to you the adult? How active you are as a youngster may help (or sabotage) your motivation to exercise in your twenties and beyond. “It’s much more difficult to change habits in adulthood than in childhood,” says Kyle Hawkey, who researches exercise motivation at the University of Minnesota. (See more 3 Bad Habits That’ll Ruin Your Future Health.)
If you were active and athletic as a kid, you’ll likely find it natural to continue exercising as an adult, Hawkey says. “Having that childhood exposure to exercise makes it less novel,” Fuemmeler adds. “You’re able to draw from your experience.”
He says building physical activity into your life as an adolescent also helps you “regulate” those behaviors later in life. By that, he means if you’ve been attending regular team practices or training sessions since childhood, it won’t seem strange to run a few mornings a week, or hit the gym after work.
All Grown Up (and Ready to Start Exercising)
“If you grew up never working out, it may be hard or even uncomfortable to start,” Hawkey says. The gym can seem like a foreign place—an unfamiliar maze filled with strange contraptions and intimidating people.
To get started, it’s good to figure out your current activity levels, Fuemmeler says. An activity monitor with a step tracker can help with this, he says. “Find your baseline, and from there you can start to challenge yourself gradually,” he explains.
Just don’t go nuts, or cram a week’s worth of exercise into a day or two. “You don’t want to be a weekend warrior,” Fuemmeler says. “You’ll just injure yourself.” Instead, your primary goal should be to work regular exercise into your weekly routine, and then continue to build on that as you become comfortable with your workouts. (Take into consideration these Motivation Makeover: 5 Steps to Make a Healthy Habit.)
Teaching Your Kids to Love Exercise
Fuemmeler says having two parents who exercise is better than one (or none) when it comes to a child’s activity levels. (So forward this to your partner!)
Especially when kids are very young, they tend to learn from watching their mom and dad, Hawkey adds. “If parents watch three hours of TV a day, their kids will be more likely to do that too,” he explains. “The same applies to exercise.”
“You can also influence your child’s exercise behaviors through direct reinforcement,” Hawkey says, citing a research brief he compiled with others at the University of Minnesota. That means driving your kids to the playground, running around with them, or watching them while they’re active.
Just don’t wait too long to start all these good exercise routines. The older children get, the harder it becomes to shift their habits, he says.
On the Other Hand...
Of course, free will also plays a part. Plenty of people with lazy parents become marathoners, just as some people with super-fit moms and dads become couch potatoes, Hawkey says.
But if you’ve ever recoiled at the sight of a gym, or felt your spirits soar as you lace up your running shoes, you may have your parents to thank.