One mom shares her experience teaching her son to enjoy being active.

By Lauren Matison
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riding bike with kids to teach them to love exercise
Credit: Lauren Matison Instagram @laurenmati

Here's something I've never told anyone: My three-year-old son Remy is my secret workout weapon. He has forever changed my relationship to exercise and competition for the better. Though I played sports my whole life before becoming a mom, I didn't always have a consistent workout routine. My primary fitness goals were to be in good shape for my next on-the-ground travel story: trekking through Patagonia, biking across France, or kayaking the longest fjord in Norway.

These days, I don't exercise just for the action-packed assignment. I'm driven by a new sense of purpose. As a mom, I want to inspire my child to love being active. I've found that sharing adrenaline-pumping adventures with my son is doubly rewarding. Balancing motherhood and exercise isn't easy, but it's undeniably worth it.

I knew I wanted to raise a family that would thrive on the pursuit of a full, active life. But with a kid in tow, staying active has its own challenges. Here's how, over the last few years, I've made exercise a fun and integral part of my family's life—without any of us feeling like we're forced to do it.

Readjust fitness expectations.

Following my unplanned c-section, I struggled to embrace the necessary slow progress of my recovery; I am NOT a patient person. Between the sleepless nights and intense abdominal pain, I feared I might never reclaim my former fit self, which had less to do with body image and more to do with what kind of role model I would become for my son. (Although, for the record, I have more body-positivity than I ever had pre-baby.)

Taking the time to heal properly (both inside and out) was ultimately the best approach. For several months after his birth, I regularly checked in with my doctor, who encouraged me (even before I left the hospital) to walk and walk and walk to boost endorphins, combat cabin fever, and speed recovery by improving circulation. Within one month post-op, abdominal binder secured, I was enjoying 45-minute stroller walks in the park. I increased the distance little by little until I felt ready to begin running and biking again. With each manageable fitness gain, I reveled in that growing sense of accomplishment, not to mention the gratitude I felt for everything my body had gone through. I continue to choose to accept that whatever exercise I am able to do that day, it is enough. (Related: 9 Things You Should Know About Postpartum Exercise)

Once I was back in the saddle, though, I felt like I needed a major fitness goal, so my husband and I signed up for the New York City Triathlon. It gave me the push I needed to really get back in the swing of things; that non-refundable spot meant I couldn't bail. (And, #humblebrag, Remy did the NYC Tri's Diaper Derby, where he won his first race!)

Let them see you in action (and vice versa).

Since infancy, Remy has been a willing (if at first, immobile) participant in my workout routines. As a baby, he would watch from the mamaRoo as I pedaled on the indoor trainer. On family hikes, he'd gaze up at the trees, grasp leaves and coo at mourning doves from the Deuter carrier. As he began to crawl, he would roll around next to me on the floor as I did my early morning HIIT routine; now he likes to count out my reps and copy each exercise in his own style. Turns out, this isn't a bad tactic.

"There are so many benefits of family fitness. Not only for yourself, but to lead by example for our kids, strengthen the family connection, and create wonderful memories at the same time," says Alison Mitzner, M.D., a pediatrician, fitness guru and mother of two. "We are our children's greatest role models. If they see you exercising, eating healthy foods, working out and staying fit, they will join in on those good habits and take them into adulthood." (Related: Here's How Moms Hack Their Homes to Exercise More and Eat Healthier)

Build a strong team spirit.

To fine-tune our training regimen for the NYC Triathlon, my husband and I signed up as "Team Remy" for smaller races like the Central Park Spring Relay. Countless races later, Remy is our loudest cheerleader and loves joining sweaty family outings, whether he's zooming on his Woom balance bike while we jog alongside or reclining on long rides in the Burley trailer or in his Thule bike seat on the back of my Brooklyn Bicycle Co. city bike.

Without any prompting from his parents, Remy recently inquired about doing his own bike race, so we entered him in the Strider Cup in Boulder, CO. Although we're not creating a lot of hullabaloo about the race itself, Remy is revved up about our trip to Colorado. He's eager to ride with new bike friends and look for police cars at the race. Mostly, he asks to see photos of Boulder's Valmont Bike Park and the wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. We're not grooming a future Tour de France champion, but rather hoping to use an active experience as a catalyst for fun family adventures.

Luckily, there's no shortage of family-friendly races across the country that celebrate athleticism in a light-hearted atmosphere, like the Enormous Elephant RunMermaid DashThe Color Run, and Memorial Sloan Kettering's Kids Walk. Let your kids pick from a list of pre-selected races to ensure it's a manageable feat for their age and fitness level (and your budget), and consider checking in with a pediatrician before participating. Of course, you might love for your kids to finish a race, but if they don't, let them know you're proud they went out there, did their best and raised money for a cause. The message isn't about winning or even finishing; it's about sharing an exhilarating journey, accepting new challenges, facing fears, and growing from them.

Get outside (and away from the screen).

On a weekly basis, Remy and I go to a big park in Brooklyn for leisurely hikes, rock climbing, cruising around on his Bureo skateboard, or kicking the soccer ball. By doing active, outdoorsy things with Remy at an early age, it's become a regular part of our family lifestyle that he seems to truly enjoy.

Kids ages two to five thrive on "free play," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Unstructured outdoor activities not only stimulate footloose fun, but they also provide a higher quality experience for developing basic body awareness, self-regulation, and sensory integration. And if you needed yet another reminder of Mother Earth's positive impact on our mental health, a new study from Aarhus University in Denmark says kids who spend time in nature become happier adults.

That's why I try to maximize the weekends with hikes or camping trips. After school, Remy often asks to go hiking in the park and is keen to lead while scouting birds, insects, and good trees to climb. By coaxing an attachment to nature, you're not only activating a curious mind and appetite for adventure, but you're also enabling kids to discover a fascinating, tactile world beyond the screen.

I used to allow several hours of weekly screen time, and Remy would ask for Daniel Tiger far more than he'd ask to go outside. Now, I only give him one hour per week, according to new recommendations from the World Health Organization, which suggest one hour of screen time a day (or none!) for children ages two to four. It's actually working, too: He rarely asks for a show now, preferring to ride his bike, read books, play with his toy trucks, and roam in the wild.

We haven't always lived near a green space, so I had to find other active diversions such as scavenger hunts in the playground and rock climbing gyms (when we had a good Groupon deal). Some of Remy's friends prefer martial arts classes (also an affordable option with online discounts) or swimming at a public pool or the local YMCA, which offers financial assistance for those unable to cover the membership costs.

Find an active support tribe.

Shortly after Remy was born, I joined a nationwide nonprofit called Hike it Baby, started the Manhattan branch, and began hosting family-friendly hikes. It gives me an opportunity to meet other moms seeking fresh air and camaraderie in a judgment-free zone. When we moved to Brooklyn, I posted in a local parents group inviting families to gather for a balance bike playdate in the park; we now have a built-in motivational network of bike buddies. (Related: The Power of Having a Fitness Tribe, According to Jen Widerstrom)

I'll be the first to admit that making new friends and scheduling sporty playdates can feel like a job.  Signing up for organized activities can be way easier than planning them yourself. During the summer, Remy goes to Brooklyn Nature Days, an outdoor school that cultivates independent self-exploration in little on-the-go learners. These "classrooms without walls" can be found throughout the country and are wonderful (and less labor-intensive) ways to connect with a community of like-minded families. New moms might consider Stroller Barre and Baby Boot Camp's Mom Strong Tribe, and for digital support groups, I turn to Moms for TriathlonMoms Who Run, and Raising Little Wilds.

Don't make fitness a chore.

Exercise should be a priority, but it shouldn't be something that wears you down or generates anxiety; kids of all ages sense when their parents are stressed. And if you're trying to instill a healthy approach to fitness in your children, it can't feel like a burden. That's why I don't do physically demanding activities with my son every day.

On days when I have planned something active as a family, I check in with Remy, and really listen to him to make sure he's excited to pedal, hike, climb, kick. If I get the sense he's just trying to please me or that his heart isn't in it, I give him some other options—or have him suggest something. I've discovered that putting healthy decisions in my kid's hands makes him feel empowered instead of controlled.

Use creative motivators, not bribery.

There's no denying that certain situations call for a little extra incentive. When it comes to exercise, however, I want Remy to be self-motivated, not wholly incentivized, which is why I don't rely on treats or screen time as a reward.

That said, I try to use sly ways to sweeten the deal. One: trail mix. In anticipation of a hike or bike ride, Remy gets crafty with his favorite ingredients like raisins, nuts, chocolate chips, dried apricots, and sunflower seeds that he'll pour into his own Stasher bag. Another unexpected motivator of Remy's own design is a handlebar bag that he dubbed his "nature bag" for all the outdoor treasures he collects, from rocks to colorful leaves. (Because we follow Leave No Trace principles—including respect wildlife, dispose of waste properly, and leave what you find—Remy only keeps his discoveries for a little while before returning them to the park or forest.) For older kids, there are PBS' scavenger huntsNWF's Ranger Rick program and the USDA's Discover the Forest, which all turn exploring the outdoors into a game that's rewarding in itself.

Remy also loves filming adventures with The Rylo camera, which he often wears on his helmet. When we get home and replay a bike ride, he can feel like a Red Bull rock star as he watches himself bombing down big dirt hills and going off road with total self-confidence. Sometimes he sees himself falling over, but then a wide grin appears as he also sees that same boy getting back up, shaking it off and riding on. Remy already understands that failure is not a permanent state. And as a parent, I've been reminded of this as well. It's not about striving to be a perfect mom to a perfect child, it's about choosing to do what's best for my son's health and happiness—and mine too.

Ultimately, no matter how you approach your family's fitness journey, you'll find that kids are full of surprises, wisdom, perseverance, and wonder, and it rubs off on you in the most profound ways.