Caution: Kids (Not) Walking

I just got back from vacation, visiting the Pacific North West, where my sister and her 25 kids live.  Did I say 25?  I meant 4.  But is there really any difference?  Not to me, and, probably not to her either.  Speaking of fun times with kids, have you ever tried to take a fast walk with a two, five, and seven-year old?  Turns out you can’t travel at the pace you’d originally envisioned.  Turns out that walking with little kids is less like walking and more like herding cats.  Have you ever tried to get three or four cats to do the same thing at once?  Turns out that walking with kids is more difficult than one (without kids) can imagine.

There are many reasons why walking with little ones is challenging, but the most basic is, they aren’t at the same level of physical performance as you.  They get tired.  Then they get pokey with their little hands and feet.  Then, in a team effort, they all manage to start crying at the same time.  They also seem to manage to do it when you’re at the farthest point from the house.  It’s awesome.  Turns out exercise isn’t always a stress-reducer. Well, maybe us exercising was relaxing for Mom, who got to stay home and take a nap.

So, where does the walking child’s fatigue (I’m tiiiiired) come from?  After all, we are beings that (at all ages) have always walked, for hundreds of thousands of years, multiple hours per day, with our very survival based on walking endurance.  Simply explained, a child’s fatigue is a result of poor training.  Based on my own personal log book of thousands of miles walked, I can say that I have rarely seen a child on a walk beyond returning to the car from the restaurant.  Oh, I’ve seen kids held and packed.  I’ve seen them on skateboards and bikes. I also see kids WAY too old to be in strollers being pushed along while mom is watching her heart rate monitor.  Law of Specificity indicates:  If kids don’t walk, then when they do walk, it’s too hard. Seems like a pretty simple answer, but really, this is the basic principle of exercise science.  Of course kids are playing on jungle gyms and participating in sports — which is fine — but they aren’t walking.  {Don’t get me wrong, I see teenagers glumly walking around wishing their parents weren’t so lame, but I’m really talking about kids aged two to twelve, with developing bodies.}

In the olden days (not like 200 years ago, but 20,000 years ago), walking was inherent to our biological culture.  From a biomechanical perspective, it is clear we need to return to walking this kind of distance for the survival of our biology. We can start with a fraction of the distance.  I can’t say this enough:  Doing other exercise does not replace walking, as your physiology depends on the very particular mechanical signals found in regular, well-aligned locomotion.

How do you get your kids walking?

1.  Start walking yourself. (Uh-oh.)

2.  Start walking with your kids. This is going to go a lot slower than your walk (trust me) but it’s important to walk as a family at their pace.  Discuss that you will be walking “because walking is the most important form of exercise.” Let them help plan the route you take.  Pick a short distance and make that a habit (i.e. let’s walk to the store or to the creek), so they don’t feel the walk will go on indefinitely.  Kids love things that seem to go on forever without end.

3.  Understand that your kids need to develop the motor programming, strength, and endurance to walk with you. Develop your walking distances accordingly, increasing them no more than 10% per week.

4.  You probably need to carve more time out for health. If you only have 45-minutes allotted for walking, realize that this is inadequate time for everyone (you and your kids) to get what they need biologically.  Consider replacing a planned activity with Vitamin D.W. (Daily Walk).  This walk is more important than just about anything…trust me.

One more thing when it comes to kids and walking.  They don’t like walking because it’s booriiiing.  But guess what?  Parents probably think it’s boring too, which is why music and classes and gyms and special outfits exist.  I once heard “If you’re bored, you’re boring.”  Ouch!  But, it’s kind of true.  There’s nothing boring about your body, in dynamic motion, with it’s 200 bones, 230 joints, 600 muscles all alive with neurological connection to your brain with each step.  Nothing boring about the planet you’re walking on and the bugs, animals, and people you share it with.  Develop a daily appreciation for your freedom to walk, and then pass it on.

Many people come to me as adults in despair, wishing that they had had one iota of health presented to them as children.  In overzealous response, many of us are replacing our lack of natural movement with fitness, which can take care of one issue but creates others.  Walking with your kids is free.   No classes, special camps, or equipment required.  No more excuses.  Kids need more than “playing all day.”  They need to be able to walk quite a distance.  Start your family training today.  Their bones and brains will thank you!

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36 thoughts on “Caution: Kids (Not) Walking

  1. You are so right. At a summer day-camp in Ventura, they couldn’t play many running games because the kids (ages 5-10) got tired too easily. They complained that it hurt the back of their legs (hamstrings) to run and play. Such a scary epidemic. And you’re right again, we do drive them everywhere!
    I can see now that my getting out to walk is even more important. Our kids don’t always do what we say, but they will do what we do.

  2. or get a dog – that pretty much builds walking into family’s daily life 🙂 (I’m only partly kidding).

    But I’m still a little surprised to read this, because I live in a town where kids are often seen walking – on their own, or with their families. I think this could certainly be improved and increased, no doubt about it, but I can’t agree that we never see it, and that kids are completely unprepared for it.

    The only other thing I would add is that it’s important, when they’re very young, not to make it feel like a forced march. When mine were younger, there were plenty of stops to look at rocks, poke about in the pond, inspect plants – it’s that connection to the outdoor environment that keeps it from feeling like a chore, and something that increases their appreciation of being outside and active, for the long term.

  3. Katy, I love this post!! I am an avid walker, and when I was a bit younger it was not unusual for me to walk up to 4 or 5 hours a day. Now at 9 months pregnant, I am not walking 4 or 5 hours a day, but still getting in lots of shorter walks. I STILL dont’ waddle, and although my hips ache and burn at night in bed (joints loosening?) after my first 3 or 4 steps in the morning, my pain is gone. it’s amazing! no, it’s natural biology.

    My spouse and I plan on walking all the time with our baby! First in a sling *duh* and then on their own, we want to get them into a habit of taking walks just for the sake of taking a walk. My mother and I always took lovely walks (like the first snowfall every winter since i was 7 years old) and even now when we visit each other we go strolling to have nice long chats and spend time together. better than being stuck in front of the tv i say!

  4. I have started walking with my 5 year old granddaughter, actually i walk and she rides her bike. i was felling good that I was getting the walking benefit (at a reasonable speed) and she was getting exercise (wear the little rascal out) but after reading the above I am sure you would not approve of my method. Aaa – will I ever get it right?

  5. Katy left the northwest after a 7 day visit with sister, brother-in-law, mother ,3 nephews and 1 niece. She left a great impression on these kids as they continue to practice all that she taught them about gait and posture. Ray Lynn (5) sits and meditates with her back straight, legs crossed and hands cupped with fingers pointed to the sky. Cole (7) is head stand crazy and is continually practicing the triangle position to form a good base. James (1) has just learned to walk and he was evaluated by auntie and earned an A. Owen (3) just likes to run around completely naked all of the time. Well, Katy was a good influence most of the time.
    We miss you. Love, Gramma Lynn

  6. Now that my youngest is 2 years old, we do lots of walking as often as we can. We did not have a car for 3 years either, so we all got used to walking to bus / train stops and all over stockholm. Now we have a car again, but it is used just for getting lots of groceries once a week and once school starts, to take our boy to school (over a 40 minute drive away).

  7. Katy- So funny! Ty and I took our 16 month girls for a walk yesterday and took them out of the stroller to walk by the harbor. They had fun and even with two IT IS JUST LIKE HEARDING CATS!

  8. Yes, but 20,000 years ago children were walking barefoot. Big difference. From this study:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17353125

    “Based on the assumption that barefoot walking represents the best condition for the development of a healthy foot… ”

    So one of the biggest reasons children may not walk much is the horrible, thick shoes that they wear. Barefoot or minimal children’s shoes are best.

      1. We moved to “town” a couple of years ago so walking to the store, to classes, to dinner or where ever became the norm. It was a struggle at first, but then as we weaned ourselves off of heavy soled foot wear with arch support and such suddenly the kids weren’t getting so tired(and my knee stopped aching). Now they go out walking willingly and my eleven year old likes to walk with me so we can talk about things. My other daughter who had one foot out would turn out when she walked now walks with it straight in front of her. I’m sure part of the change in being able to walk longer distances was increasing the amount of walking we were doing but, minimal shoes or bare feet definitely makes for happier walking for us.

  9. I think most moms use strollers to keep their kids safe instead of having them run off …seeing as they have minds of their own. As for fun walks, the best are nature walks where kids can explore and forage on the ground for “treasures” and also name trees, flowers, bugs……and good luck getting your kids to walk more than 45 minutes! All good things must come to an end BEFORE meltdowns! 🙂

  10. When the kids are just a little older, say 10-12, take a digital camera. Lots of photo opportunities, getting really creative with micro shots of nature as well as human element in nature, can motivate them to want to get out and explore.

  11. Why is our present societal application of technology, as a whole, biased to discourage or deny a most apparent and essential truth: the fact that our well-being, our very happiness, is directly related to our intimate and responsible embrace of our bodies – and the body as a unified whole? That lesson, passed on to our children, honors that whole-bodily truth and is a manifest prayer for well-being and happiness in the future. For me, Restorative Exercise asserts this truth as a practical, universal science; and Katy’s blog provides a humorous and incisive narrative of the ongoing, manifold story unfolding – as she authors and the world composes.

  12. Like Sophie, I’m a little puzzled by this entry. But then I live in a very walk-centric environment, New York City — specifically Brooklyn, next door to wonderful Prospect Park.

    It’s true that these days kids don’t walk to and from school on their own like we did back in times of yore, but they are on their feet in my neighborhood pretty much all day.

    1. Kids are up and running around (in small spaces like parks and on a field) but they aren’t WALKING – which is a completely different mechanical program and essential for human function. Exercise doesn’t replace WALKING…still needs to be done! – katy

  13. Hi Katy ~ we have walked with our daughter from the time she was born, before actually. First in a pack where she became accustomed to long walks in the forest, on the beach or the many trails of the Central Coast. As soon as she could walk, did I say walk – she was running these same trails. She is 8 now and on our camping trip in the Sierras this summer she hiked a 3.5 mile loop with a 2000 foot elevation increase. After four hours, we were back to our camp site at 7000 feet elevation. I didn’t make that same hike until I was 12. I can’t say enough for the benefits of walking! Thanks for another great post!

  14. Right on Katy! My niece and nephew are starting to enjoy walking and hiking. They know that when aunt Lori is picking them up from school they are going to walk home just like she used to!

  15. This applies to posture as well. So many people have poor posture…kids tend to sit “hanging on their ligaments” with the posterior longitudinal ligament and the ligamentum flavum over-stressed by working to limit flexion. Yet, when sitting “straight” they can’t do so for more then a few minutes at time before the muscles, which should be doing the work, fatigue. Good posture, like walking, needs to be “trained” as well.

    P.S. I thought of this post when I went for a hike yesterday. There were two young girls doing a 5 mile hike with their family and I almost said to them “thank you for training your kids to walk!”

  16. One way to keep the kids together is to revive another ancient art: storytelling. When my family walks we tell them long stories in a quiet voice. By keeping our voices quiet, we force them to stay nearby to us. By making the story long enough we urge them to look forward to the next walk when they’ll be hearing the next part of the story. Walks are never boring.

  17. We’ve been taking our girls for hikes since they could walk, too. We were Ergo kid carriers for those instances when one or the other hits the wall. It doesn’t happen very often, each kid can walk, at our speed, for a minimum of 5 miles. I can’t get over how fast their legs move, I’ve tried to match their steps and I just can’t do it. Why is that?
    They are three now and and in between foot sizes for minimalist shoes. When they first learned to walk they were in Robeez which is just a thin leather moccasin, but those are only sized up to 2 years. Vivo barefoot is the only one I can find with a child line and starts at size 10.5, which is a bit too big. I’ve finally settled on having them hike in Padraig slippers, a crocheted wool upper on a suede sole with shearling lining. These are a little slippery on steep inclines, littered in leaves, but they have developed a scamper that gets them down without falling.

  18. I’m not sure if that’s really he case – my oldest child is 3, nearly 4, and we don’t have a car so I walk everywhere. My daughter walks with me, too. Until she gets too tired, when she goes in a carrier or stroller because I’d really like to walk that last 500 metres in less than hour. Her stamina varies a lot from day to day – sometimes she will get tired after only a few minutes and maybe half a mile and other days she can carry on for hours. So while I think that lots of kids haven’t built up walking stamina, fatigue is also a result of being little in a big world. Before cars and strollers, children still got tired, and had to be carried.

    1. Of course kids get tired, but studies show that most aren’t even walking enough to GET tired. You are obviously doing an excellent job at providing walking time for them. Bravo!

  19. I so wish I could go back in time for my children and do all these things! I know I went against most of the advice (and followed my Mom’s advice) and my kids went barefoot A LOT! But now I have a very inactive younger son, and a husband who refuses to walk as “it’s too darn boring”. I have begged, lectured, pleaded, to no avail. All of them watch me walk all over, but can’t get them to join me. Anyone have any advice??

    1. Have you tried geocaching? It’s like treasure hunting with at GPS. My son likes to do that.

      Otherwise I try and find events around town that involve walking – outdoor car show, nature hike with a conservatory, art walk – whatever interests my boys already have, I try and find activities that are interesting enough.

      Or bribe them with ice cream. I’ve done that too *blush*

    2. I absolutely love this article. Thank you!

      We live in AZ and it gets so stinking hot during the summer, when my kids are out of school. Walking is hard on them in the heat.

      Sometimes, the kids ride their scooters. It helps get them out and doing some kind of movement, although walking would be the best.

      We see lots of fun things along the way and my kids like to walk on neighbor’s walls.

      We also do “popsicle walks”, where we start out with a fruit popsicle and eat it along the way. It helps in the heat. 🙂

  20. We are retirees, and STILL find that a loooong daily walk is good for mental health and improves sleep. We have found that it’s important to play, if you can — throw rocks in the river, hang from trees, climb a rock. After a lifetime of being a “responsible adult,” it takes a bit of practice to remember the joy of it, but it is so worth it. Maybe we’ll someday be lucky enough to have a grandchild to walk with, and live near enough that we can have him/her for long periods of time. PS, Katy, can I just say how great it is to have butt muscles after a lifetime without?

  21. i just came back from a store where i saw a kid, about 3 or 4 years old sitting in a stroller with some gadget in his hands and he was watching a kids music video about exercise! how it makes us feel good and keeps us healthy. well at least it’s better than being pushed around a store!

  22. I am very impressed at all these kids that walk.. mine (5 & 2) willingly travel 4-5 miles (probably more if you count all the circles they go in) on their feet, but mostly run/skip/jump/hop/cartwheel… I’m not sure they ever manage to just walk!

  23. My brothers and I grew up walking in the mountains, where we lived in Switzerland. We had to walk to get to school. 4 times a day. Down the hill 30 minutes and up again. When I started raising my own American children, as soon as they could walk, we’d walk to the mailbox down the street. Then to the park. Then home again when everyone was tired …but we had to make it home! When we’d go to the Zoo, it was a walking /running trip. I am amazed at the number of 4yods in a stroller! Now we live by a trail that basically never ends. It’s great! My 3yo can walk a few miles without complaining. The older ones like their bikes because they are lazy, but now it’s winter, so no bikes!

  24. PS: About the herding cats. I’ve noticed that the more children walk, the better they are at walking straight ahead without ambling into the side of the sidewalk all the time. They walk straight ahead with their head up. Kids who are used to being in a stroller can’t walk a line, for some reason. I’ve noticed this with friends, mostly of younger children, 5yo and younger. I bet you have a scientific explanation for that, Katy! Would love to read it.

  25. So I have been reading your posts for a while now, and I am absolutely sold on this more natural approach to health and fitness – but I am really struggling with how to implement this in my life. I have a 19 month old daughter, and I would love to be able to walk long distances with her, but I can’t figure out how to do it. We live right near a beautiful walking trail in the woods, but I can’t actually get her to walk with me – she runs in circles, plays with the rocks, etc. Which is wonderful, I love to get her out in nature and exploring the world with her. But how do I get my walking time in as well? She is not crazy about being in a carrier for long amounts of time, and I can’t carry her for long – she gets very squirmy, and wants to be back on the ground exploring. Is it possible to teach a child so young to walk with me? How? And what kind of distance or time spent walking is actually a realistic goal at this point?

    1. Hi Melissa,
      I think I wrote a post about this awhile back–you’ve got to take “training” walks, before you’re ready to go out. Think, taking her out for 10 minutes saying, where do YOU want to go, let her lead, and then head right home when she’s tired. Do this 1-3 times a day, trying to go different places, letting her stop when she’s tired. Search and see if you can find that post, but I’m also working on a first 5 years of natural movement for kids how-to book as well… Keep up the good work and I’ll see if I can write a new post here soon! -KAB

  26. I started taking my 3.5yo little guy and our hyper pup on bush walks three weeks ago. He has walked to and from school (about a km each way) for a while, but he often asked to be carried. On our new walks, we pack a picnic and just walk at his pace, looking at any nests and coloured leaves. Today he walked 5.3km (3.2 miles)! And it was fun.

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