Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

Why’s My Kid a Couch Potato: Is He Lazy…or Something Else?

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Got a kid who’d rather binge-watch anything on a screen than head outdoors to play—alone or with other children? We asked experts why some kids avoid physical activity. Here’s what they had to say:

Why do smart, strong, perfectly healthy kids avoid physical activity? Are they lazy, or what?

Many things contribute to a kid’s lack of physical activity, says Susan J. Woolford, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor, University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What tops her list? No surprise here: technology and devices. Dr. Woolford says they allow kids to be entertained without being active. Some kids can’t separate from their devices, especially when they get so wrapped up in apps and games.

What else stops kids from being active?

Kids’ busy schedules also can prevent them from squeezing in enough activity, says Eileen Kennedy, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Kennedy says over-scheduling a child’s “nonphysical activities” doesn’t help, while others suggest that a sedentary family lifestyle, and even the neighborhood where kids live, can play a role. Children who are around active people tend to be more active, says Dr. Woolford. Parents are especially important role models, since they can plan active family activities like tag football or walking to the library. Also, if a neighborhood isn’t safe, parents may not feel right sending their kids to play outside, she reports.

Can fatigue contribute to a kid’s couch-potato habits?

Experts agree: Kids need sleep—and it’s up to parents to see that they get it. Dr. Kennedy recommends looking to the National Sleep Foundation for guidance—for children ages 6 to 13 years old, the recommended amount of snooze time is between 9 and 11 hours.

Do kids need a role model for an active lifestyle?

Absolutely, experts say.Some kids need to be inspired to move around.Kids will often do what they see others around them doing, says Daheia Barr-Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Kinesiology in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But even if a parent isn’t that physically active, having teachers who promote physical activity may inspire kids to get moving. “A healthy community,” she says, “determines a healthy individual.”

Does anything else create a couch-potato culture?

Families not having hard-and-fast rules for games, apps, and screen time in general can contribute to the problem. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines, which call for limiting screen time for children older than six so that it’s not replacing healthy behaviors.

Family rules also matter, says Dr. Kennedy. For example, if you tell your child she has five minutes left for screen time and she fusses, it is perfectly fine to restrict screen time for several days after that. You have to be able to say, “This is how much screen time you can have, and this is when you can have it.” Then help your child find other things to do outside. (And here’s a tip to help encourage movement: When it’s time to leave the couch, Dr. Barr-Anderson says, just announce, “That’s it for screen time. Now it’s time for you to get up and move your body.”)

Would it help if parents understood the risks of being sedentary?

Experts say yes. The risks include mindless eating, weight gain, low self-esteem, and behavioral problems including depression and anxiety. Dr. Barr-Anderson notes that television exposes kids to lots of junk-food ads, which may add mindless eating to an already sedentary life. From there, the problem snowballs: Overweight kids may have to deal with the stigma that being overweight can cause. “The impact of excess weight can be both emotional and physical, and even interfere with the child’s social skills and the ability to interact with their peers,” she adds.