Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 19 Jan 2012 07:07:42 -0500

Talking to Kids


(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from November 1988. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

I feared facing these 14-year-olds. I knew how they could be, having been one myself and having one now in my house.

At 14, I teetered on the uncertain sands of early adolescence. I acted out the uncertainty by clowning in class, then visited the principal’s office regularly to answer for these disruptions.

Now Mike Lundgren, director of the Wellness 10K, had asked me to talk to the eighth-graders at a junior high school in Marshalltown, Iowa. Here sat a hundred 14-year-olds.

I imagined the girls talking with each other or doing their hair, the boys punching each other on the shoulder or falling asleep. Fourteen-year-olds don’t want to hear anyone telling them to do what’s good for them.

The unfitness of kids this age, and their disinterest in changing, is legendary. Adult interest in fitness hasn’t filtered down to the next generation. This could be because we’re sending the wrong messages.

Speaking to adults, Dr. Kenneth Cooper grabs their attention by stating, “We are going to be the first generation of parents to bury our children.” The message from well-meaning exercise missionaries sounds grim when translated as, “Get fit or die!” The message from too many coaches and P.E. teachers still is, “No pain, no gain!”

The unspoken message from parents who exercise is often one of exhausting, joyless effort. Who wants or needs that at 14?

I brought a different message to these kids: “Parents, teachers and fitness preachers can’t make you do something just because it’s good for you. But we can encourage you to find something you enjoy doing.”

“Find an activity you like so much that you would do it even if it did you no good. Mine is running. It has sometimes been painful, but never a pain to do. It is often tiring, but I never tire of doing it.”

I didn’t tell these kids to become runners, but instead urged them to become more active in their own favorite ways. Those activities can make them fit almost by accident while they’re finding more immediate rewards.

I told about my own daughter and son. Sarah was then 14, Eric 11. Both were confirmed members of the passive-entertainment, fast-food generation.

At her dad’s insistence, Sarah tried a distance race when she was younger. It was a mile fun-run.

She finished in good shape but announced later, “I hate to sweat.” She hadn’t run a long race since then.

Eric’s school held a cross-country race that fall. I tried to get him to enter, telling him all the beauties of running through the fields on an autumn afternoon.

His reply: “No, thanks. That’s your sport, not mine.”

These kids weren’t runners and might never be. Yet Sarah chose to walk to and from a faraway bus stop each day instead of catching the school bus in front of the house. Eric begged to go hiking, biking or swimming.

They were active in activities of their own choice. That’s what counts. The body isn’t particular about how it moves, so long as it does.

“It doesn’t even have to move very far, very fast or very often,” I told the eighth-graders. “Forget those sayings, ‘Pain equals gain,’ and, ‘Give 110-percent effort.’

“Comfortable half-efforts might be good enough: half-hour training periods at half-speed, half the days of each week. Anything is better than nothing, but once you get hooked on the activity you may come to want something more than these minimum amounts.”

The 14-year-olds weren’t disruptive during this talked. They at least pretended to listen.

And when the lecture ended 10 minutes before the class period did, they didn’t bolt for the door for a morning snack break. They asked good questions, and were still asking them when the final bell rang.

I’d misjudged these kids. They weren’t hostile or indifferent to the fitness message – not if it wasn’t being shoved down their throats like a bitter pill.

UPDATE: Daughter Sarah eventually learned to like sweating. She has run several races, but her activity of choice is now bicycling. Eric chooses to go to the gym rather than the roads, and he sports muscle definition that his dad never had.

A dozen years after this column appeared, I began teaching running classes at the University of Oregon. My students were kids as young as 18.

My job here wasn’t so much to instruct them on how to run as to get them to want to run. I measure success as a teacher by how many of these kids keep running after the class term ends.

[This piece and others appear on a Facebook page titled “Joe Henderson’s Writings.” I invite you get each update by going to that page and clicking “Like.” The three books of my memoir series – Starting Lines, Going Far, and Running Home – are available as e-books for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Other books of mine in this format: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now and Rich Englehart’s e-book about me, Slow Joe. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Sample chapters are free – as are applications for dedicated e-readers, personal computers, iPads, iPods, and other smart-phones and tablets.]

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