I’m a generation X child and as such I grew up with the idea that exercise for women was about staying skinny. Taking up less space. Wearing a leotard and jumping up and down at aerobics class (no wonder all the female boomers have stress urinary incontinence issues, but that’s for another post) and avoiding putting on muscle at all costs. In my extended family there are runners, cyclists, elite triathletes, marathoners and ultramarathoners. My mother was all of the above. As far as I knew, exercise meant cardio and strength training was off limits – that was something that the men did in that cement room just off the swimming pool at our local rec centre, where they kept the doors shut except to let sweaty guys in and out. And the smell that drifted out of that room when the door opened? It was one of those smells that hits you right in the back of the throat and makes you gag before you know what even happened.
Fast-forward 15 years to 2006, when I was a young mom to two tiny girls. I was more than 100lbs overweight, sleep deprived, and grieving the loss of my freedom and the life I thought I was working toward (none of the pregnancy and parenting books talk about grieving the loss of the person you were before you pushed a screaming monster out of your vagina, but it’s a thing). I felt overwhelmed with the demands of motherhood, and terrified of what was going to happen to all three of us if I didn’t get my demons under control. I joined the YMCA near our house in an attempt to find myself again (and lose the extra weight) because they had child care and it was an opportunity to come out of the mommy mole-hole and get some air. To focus on myself and not worry about the two tiny humans who depended on me for everything in the other twenty-three hours of every day. That was the beginning of the turnaround – I did five triathlons that year (because exercise still meant cardio and was primarily a means to get smaller, although I was beginning to understand exercise’s impact on mental health) but I lost more than 100lbs that year, and became a personal trainer.
In 2014 I was forced to the sidelines by a series of chance health problems, which led to a lot of weight gain and clinical depression. I couldn’t do what I had been doing (a lot of martial arts which my daughters and I did together, and obstacle racing) so I decided to try powerlifting as a stopgap – you know, just until I could go back to life as I knew it. I was not expecting to fall completely in love with barbell sports but that’s what happened, first with powerlifting and soon after that with Olympic weightlifting – and my daughters had front row seats to the transformation that happened in their mom. I grew strong (turns out I had some natural aptitude for strength), confident, and driven. I lost 80lbs and stopped taking antidepressants. To my surprise I started winning competitions, and in 2019 I won a bronze medal at the World Masters’ Weightlifting Championships.
So I am not exaggerating when I say that twice, exercise has saved me from obesity and crippling depression, and both times, my daughters were my inspiration. I don’t know if I would have managed to turn things around if it weren’t for them.
To be clear, while all this was going on, I did not push exercise on my daughters. They were active, of course, in all the usual kid things: team sports, track and field, swimming lessons, etc. As a family we were active together – we hiked, swam, went bouldering, camping, took family martial arts classes, I coached their soccer teams…My youngest daughter threw herself into rock climbing and became one of the best climbers at the gym where she took classes. My older daughter, however, is built just like her mom – naturally bigger and stronger than most of her counterparts – and I started hearing the warning bells go off when she was in junior high: she felt slow. Fat. She was starting to hate her body because she didn’t look like the other girls on her basketball team.
So I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I brought her to the gym with me. I thought that if I could show her that her body was strong and awesome and could do all sorts of things other kids couldn’t do, she would learn to love it and accept it. She did her first powerlifting meet at 14 years old and also became one of Canada’s top junior Olympic weightlifters, bringing home a silver medal from Junior National Weightlifting Championships in 2018. Now, at 17 years old, she is strong and confident and appreciates her body for all the cool things it’s able to do.
My younger daughter took more of a meandering path up to the bar(bell). Naturally athletic, she enjoys playing organized and recreational sports, and she built a solid base of strength during her years of rock climbing. At 15, she is a regular member of the gym (and Pantheon Barbell) and has spent the past year getting acquainted with powerlifting. She enjoys training for raw strength, and has noticed the stark difference in how she feels when she trains regularly vs when she doesn’t.
So, should parents train with their kids?
That is a loaded question and of course, like every other health- and -fitness-related question, the answer is…it depends. Depends on the parents’ circumstances, depends on the age, maturity level, and interest of the children – among other things.
I am the last person who’s going to judge any other parent for making the best possible decision for themselves and their kids. What follows is just what I think based on my experiences – the ideas about exercise I inherited from my parents, and what I’ve learned from 15 years of training people in the gym from all walks of life – from pre-teens to young parents to established professionals to octogenarians. And this is not going to be a popular opinion, but here it is anyway: the gym is not (usually) a place for young kids.
Hang on, before you decide I’m an asshole and navigate off this page, let me explain in a little more detail. First there is the issue of safety: kids are not known for their calm judgement and peripheral awareness, so if they are ambulatory, they need constant supervision from someone. The second big issue (which stems from the first) is that when a parent goes to the gym, more often than not they are there to get their own workout in, not supervise and teach their kids how to use the gym responsibly, at the expense of their own workout time. I know I’m not alone in that when my kids were young, the ONLY time I could carve out to think thoughts and focus on myself and try and feel like a person was my gym time. And in that one hour of the day when I managed to escape from the madness, I would not have wanted to be tripping over other people’s semi-supervised kids in the gym. For this reason alone, if clients ask me if they can bring kids to their workout, the answer is usually no – because if they are going to get a good workout in, they need to be able to focus on themselves.
Now, I am not saying kids don’t belong in the gym, full stop. There are lots of benefits to getting kids into the gym early so they get used to the environment and grow into happy, healthy adults who value physical activity. The caveat here is that if you are going to bring your kid to the gym, that visit needs to be 100% about your kid – what’s going to be fun for them, physically appropriate, and courteous to the other gym members (remembering, of course, that this might be the only hour of the day that they can escape from their own house full of small tyrants). IF you have any doubts about what might be fun or appropriate for your kid’s age and physical development, or if you’re there to get your own workout in but your babysitter bailed and you’re stuck, well…maybe an idea to make other arrangements.
TLDR: When is it a good idea to bring your kid(s) to the gym?
- When they’re genuinely interested and want to try coming to the gym.
- When they have some qualified guidance from a professional; either in an age-appropriate group setting or one on one instruction.
- When you are there to make that gym visit about your kid(s).
This is a huge topic and I could go on and on about ages and stages of development and appropriate exercise, about being active together as a family (which is amazing for relationship building and growing together), about modelling an active lifestyle so that you show your kids how awesome exercise can be, etc. I could also go on and on about how important it is as a parent to make sure you look after your own health and wellness first – you’ll be a better parent, partner, and person if you give yourself space to go to the gym on your own. If you have the time for both, awesome! If not, you probably don’t need another thing to feel guilty about.