Ask the Expert: I need help to get my daughters active

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Get your girls away from the TV with a family health project. Photograph: Thinkstock

Get your girls away from the TV with a family health project. Photograph: Thinkstock


Q I am a mum of two lovely girls, who are seven and just nine. Although they are doing very well and I have no major problems with them, I often feel guilty that they don’t have the healthiest level of exercise or diet, despite my best intentions. I have been thinking about this a lot while I have been off work for a few weeks this summer.

The girls were hard to motivate to do anything physical such as going for a walk, hike or cycle, although they do like swimming, which can be an expensive option. I know they spend way too much time watching TV or on their tablets than I know is healthy; hours can pass without them moving, or stepping outside.

My husband and I work full-time and the girls attend after-school until 4pm, Monday to Friday, when I pick them up. They don’t have any interest in doing any sports classes. They tried a dance class last year, which they didn’t enjoy. When they have friends over, they tend to want to play on their tablets too.

Dinner wise, if I’m honest, they rarely get a proper home-cooked meal, even at the weekends, and I know we are totally responsible for this.

Do you have any suggestions to make some changes while I’m motivated with the start of the school year?

A Your question highlights how the many pressures of modern life can make it hard to preserve a healthy and active family lifestyle. With the constant temptation of technology and the easy access to convenient food, coupled with hardworking parents and busy children in school, it can be very hard to prioritise important things such as healthy eating and getting active.

However, with a little bit of planning you can make a difference and the autumn is a great time to start when new routines can be established as the children start back to school.

Starting a healthy family project

Call a family meeting and discuss with your daughters how you feel you have got off track as a family, and you want to make a family health plan. Listen to what they think and feel and ask questions that help them think things through for themselves, such as “Do you think we all do enough exercise?” “How could we include some fun activities at the weekend?” and “Wouldn’t it be great to have a special family meal once a week?”

Set up a weekly family meeting

You can take turns to cook the meal – your girls are at a great age to learn this – and also chairing the meeting and choosing the family game. Aside from making plans, a family night has lots of other benefits for families, such as improved communication and closeness.

Generate lots of fun positive goals

During one of your family meetings, ask your girls to generate 10 fun healthy things you could do as a family, 10 healthy foods you would all like to try, or 10 fun things they can do at weekends that do not involve their tablets.

Once you have a list you can set a family challenge to do one new thing each week or to achieve five by the mid-term. Below are some ideas to get your started:

More family activity

Healthy family eating Have more time for a healthy breakfast. Sit down together at meals. Put smaller portions on plates, or let children choose the amount they eat. Have sweets only during family night. Have fizzy drinks only at parties. Grow vegetables in the garden. Make a list of 10 healthy meals or foods that you will try as a family. Teach children how to cook, or do a healthy cooking course together.

For more information, there are some great websites such as

Be creative The trick is to have a bit of fun with a family health project and to think creatively of things that work on many levels. For example, if you go for a jog in the park while one of your daughters cycles with you, it is not only good for both your fitness levels, it is also good for your relationship and gives you time to chat together. Or if you take up some gardening as a family, you not only do something outdoors together, you are also teaching your daughters life skills.

Dr John Sharry is a family psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus charity. He will give a seminar about promoting self-esteem in Cork on Friday, October 2nd, and a course in positive parenting will start in Dublin on Thursday, October 8th. See