From Small Steps to Big Miles

You know a kid like this. The one that would rather sit on the couch playing video games or sit in his room building with Legos than play sports. My boy did not want to move, and if he saw exercise coming, he would get his complaining face on before you could say, “Let’s go.” 

When he was a little kid, we started him in soccer. Henry didn’t enjoy it. So we stopped. When he was a little older, we bought him a bike and taught him to ride. But once he learned to balance, he didn’t want to ride anymore. He insisted he wanted a scooter instead. So we got him a scooter, which he used a few times. It didn’t catch on. Then I got him to agree to see a Tai Kwon Do class, thinking martial arts might be a better fit. He went to the class. He observed. He wouldn’t go back. Not willingly.  We tried fitness-based video games. Nothing clicked.

There are ways of making a kid to move. But I didn’t want to coerce him and make him feel worse about it. I wanted my boy to find an exercise or a sport that he enjoys, so he would own his own fitness, make it a life-long habit. I wanted him to know it felt good to move, to see progress, to become stronger. I wanted to him know there were things he could do.  

I read a book recently called Eat Move Sleep and at the end of each chapter the author, Tom Rath, offers simple suggestions for eating well, moving more and sleeping better. The whole premise is that small choices lead to big changes. I already knew that was true for me, but I didn’t guess the difference it could make for my teenage son. 

At dinner one night, I announced that I needed two volunteers. One will wash the dishes with Dad. The other will walk with me and the dog for five minutes. Just five minutes, around a square block. 

Faced with this choice, my boy chose the walk. That evening, we walked the dog for five minutes. 

On the second night, I did the same thing. Again, Henry chose the walk. This time, I extended the route, one block more in each direction. 

On the third night, it was cold and raining. Still, Henry agreed and we took our walk. He carried an umbrella. When we finished a short loop and were back at the house, Henry said, “Let’s keep going. I have something I want to ask you about.” 

Okay, I thought. We are starting to get somewhere. Walking and talking, side by side, he figured out he could ask me questions. 

He wanted to know if I would consider getting him the character set from Disney’s Frozen movie for his WiiU Disney Inifinity video game. 

I said, “I might.” And then I had an idea – a way to take this walking program up a notch. I said, “Henry, have you ever heard of a pedometer?”

I explained that this was a small device you hook onto your waist that measures the distance you walk in a day. A healthy amount of movement is about 4 miles or 10,000 steps per day. No matter how you get the steps, it translates into less time sitting. “The pedometer measures every little step you take,” I explained. “We could set a target of a certain number of miles. When you hit the target, I will buy you the game pieces.”  He said he would think about it.

I freely admit this is Bad-Example Parenting, in the sense that it was a bribe, and more video-game related rewards, and plus I was teaching him to avoid household chores by leaving the house. But it was a good offer. The character set was about $30. I have spent $30 on less important things. And at least the reward wasn’t a dessert, which would undo the good of the walking.

The next day, I was on my way to run some errands and Henry asked if I was going to get “the device.” The pedomenter, I said? You want to start today? Oh yes, he did. He couldn’t wait to build the landscapes of ice and snow in his video game, which the Elsa and Anna characters would allow him to do. 

There are all sorts of devices for measuring body activity and wellbeing. I went to a sporting goods store and bought a simple Sync pedometer. It records the miles and steps by plugging into an i-Pad app. (It’s supposed to work with an i-Phone as well, but that feature didn’t work.) I wanted a device that this clever boy couldn’t out-smart by shaking it around. He admitted to me later that he did try that, but the chip wasn’t fooled.

I figured Henry probably walked a couple of miles a day already, just through ordinary living. I set a target of 60 miles, so that he would have to put forth a little extra effort, and if he actually did walk 4 miles a day, he could reach the goal in about two weeks. I helped him set up the stride distance in the pedometer based on his height. To my surprise, at age 14 he is already 5 foot 7. Now I understand why mom’s brag about their teenage sons’ height. You just can’t believe how abruptly they sprout. 

The first day that he wore the pedometer, Mr.-I-Don’t-Like-to-Exercise walked 5.7 miles. It was a Saturday. He started by strolling around the yard and back and forth through the house. Then he declared, “I am going for a walk,” and left to explore the neighborhood. 

Our suburb is full of curvy roads and street names that all look and sound alike. To keep from getting lost, Henry devised a path based on his bus route. It covers about 2.25 miles and takes him about 45 minutes to complete (longer if I walk with him and I bring the dog). Since starting this program, he treks this route at least once a day, sometimes twice.

Henry has also learned how to add movement throughout the day.  At home, he paces when he is thinking through a creative problem or listening to music. He volunteers to go with me to the grocery store. When I pause at the frozen food aisle to ask him a question, he gestures to me to keep moving. “Walk and talk, Mom,” he says. “Walk and talk.”

That phrase caught on. Henry and I continue our evening Walk and Talks just about every day. By Day 4 with the pedometer, our roles had flipped. I can be tired after a long day, and on those nights Henry is the one coaxing me (and sometimes his dad) to go. “I need you to be ready in 15 minutes,” he’ll say. “We’re going to do my route and you’re going to have to keep up!” 

I never say no. I look forward to our conversations. With his big sister getting ready to graduate high school, it would be easy to lose the focus on Henry. Instead, he has my captive attention for nearly an hour before the end of each day. Or more to the point, I have his. 

He uses our walking time to discuss the inner workings of his favorite movies, super-hero characters and creative people he admires. “It’s amazing when you think that Stan Lee basically started in a gutter somewhere and now Marvel Comics are in every media – television, movies, comic books, books. You name it,” Henry says.

We also talk about our tentative plans to attend the international ComicCon in San Diego, where it is just about impossible to get tickets. He suggested I go in costume, as Marge Simpson. “How about the Black Widow? I want to be the hot mom at the conference,” I say. He winces. 

Once in a while he will bring up a heavier topic, like his course selection for high school or the difficulties in getting along with his sister. But mostly, he shares funny bits he has seen online. 

“I saw this funny Vine video,” he said recently, “A guy walks into a room and gasps in fright because it is such a mess. Then he says, ‘Nope. Still not cleaning it.'”  

After about a week, I joked that he was racking up the miles too fast, “What are we going to do when you reach your goal?”

“That’s easy,” he replied. “We’ll set another goal.” 

And so we did. He completed 60 miles in less than ten days (including two days where he had the flu and didn’t leave his bed). So we walked to the store to get the Frozen people for his game. And then we set a new target. I told him when he walked 160 miles, I would get him the Phineas and Ferb game pieces to add to his collection.   

That was a few weeks ago. I should have picked a bigger number. As of last night, Henry had already walked 150. He continues to average 5-6 miles per day.

It helps that we began this experiment during winter. In summer this may not have worked. Henry loves the feel of cold air on his skin. He often will refuse to zip up his coat. Sometimes he will refuse to wear a coat. “Just feel the cold air,” he says. “It’s so refreshing!” 

And if we happen to be out on a night like tonight, walking through heavy snow fall, he does not want the walk to end. He stops at a median and climbs a snowbank.

“Hold on,” he calls out. “Hold on. I just want to stand here and enjoy this for a moment.”

He sighs, taking in the wintry view, white stuff collecting on his hair and his shoulders. I pause with the dog and look up at him, with big fat snowflakes in my eyes.

I know what you mean, Henry. Me, too.