The Role of Fun in Making Exercise a Sustainable Habit

Jane WardIn an April 2013 interview, then-US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin talked about the importance of enjoying exercise: “It's all about having healthy fun. We need to find things to make it fun, like walking. We can walk to sweat, or we can do something called a "soul stroll," or you can do walking meetings. Walking doesn't have to just be about working up a sweat, it can be to work out together, or work out with your kids.”

It’s logical to think that we might be more likely to sustain more enjoyable habits, but this is a concept that researchers are just starting to examine. A critical study by Dr. Allendar and colleagues examined dozens of other studies about why people participate in physical activity. When they reviewed studies focusing on children, they found that:

  • Children enjoyed physical activity more when it provided opportunities for fun and enjoyment without competition.
  • The enjoyment and support of their parents was also critical in whether or not children were physically active.
  • Children that were more physically active were more likely to indicate they did so because it was fun and enjoyable, rather than because it was healthy.

Building on a similar theme. Drs. Burdette and Whitaker build a strong case for focusing on increasing children’s play as a means of getting children moving rather than focusing on physical activity itself.  The article discusses that “improved mood may be the most immediate and visible benefit of play, it is also the benefit most likely to reinforce play.” In other words – fun and playful activities are ones that are most likely to become a habit.

While there is still much more research to be done in this area, it is clear that fun can help sustain Safe Routes to School at the individual level.  To increase fun, consider increasing the social component by including friends or family in the trip to school, encourage exploration of the outdoors and possibly even add music and dance. 

So, go ahead and help our children to have fun (and improve their well-being) by walking, biking, or playing outside everyday! 

Jane Ward, MD, MPH is our research advisor, responsible for updating our research section and blogging on research topics. She completed a career in the US Air Force as a pediatric ophthalmologist with a strong interest in international humanitarian work. Her lifelong interest in fitness and active living led her to pursue a Masters of Public Health with a focus on Physical Activity and the built environment. For her MPH internship in the spring of 2012, she bicycled cross- country advocating and fundraising for Safe Routes to School and the League of American Bicyclists Bike Friendly America programs. She is an Assistant Professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and retains close ties with the George Washington University Department of Exercise Science. She enjoys bicycling for fun and transportation, triathlons, travel and spending time with family and friends on active vacations.