Sam stirs up a lively debate about kids and treadmills and apologizes for ableist assumptions


This week on our Facebook page (which if you don’t “like,” maybe you ought to–we share lots of fun stuff there, mostly it’s me posting but some times Tracy, Catherine, and Nat chime in too) I caused a bit of upset when I shared an ad for a kids’ treadmill with a short note saying that I thought this was a terribly sad idea. I wrote, “A treadmill for kids? Can’t they run and play outside? This makes me sad.”

“Bit of upset” is an understatement when it comes to describing our readers’ reactions. I think it was the most controversial thing I’ve ever posted with my feminism called into question.  I was called classist and ableist, elitist and pretentious.

I think I forgot the cardinal rule of being a parent. Never, ever, ever criticize the choices other parents make. I confess I’d kind of forgotten how much shame and blame parents get for their choices. My youngest kids are in their late teens and I tend to forget how judgmental people can be, including me, apparently.

And I was also reminded that social media commentary isn’t like academic life. I get a lot of criticism of my ideas, as a professor, but there’s relatively little name calling.

But thanks for calling me to task. Yes, I was ableist for not considering that not all children can run outside. Yes, I was classist for not remembering that not all families like in neighbourhoods like mine. I’m sorry. I posted quickly, without thinking, and got it wrong. It’s a complicated issue.

Readers reminded me that there are all sorts of reasons parents might choose a treadmill as a way of making sure a kid gets enough movement in their day. Some kids might have disabilities and walking on a treadmill might be better and more supportive than walking outside. Some families live in neighbourhoods where it’s not safe for children to play outside. Some parents think it’s too cold to play outside in Canadian winter and that like adults, kids might prefer to run on the treadmill while watching TV to running outside in the snow. All excellent reasons. Well, except maybe the winter thing. Unless you live in Winnipeg. Otherwise, get a snowsuit and toughen up. Generally, speaking children love playing outside in the cold and the snow.

I’ve mentioned some of the reasons for the kiddie treadmill. What about the reasons against?

Savita, a Fit is a Feminist Issue guest blogger, wrote:  “This treadmill is a terrible idea, for several reasons. First, it is not a medical device, and so insurance will not pay for it. Second, if you live in an unsafe neighbourhood, it’s because you can’t afford a safer neighbourhood. How will a $100 child’s treadmill address the problem? Third, children need unstructured play for their neuromuscular systems and brains to develop. Fourth, weather is no excuse for children not to play outside. Children love running around in the rain, splashing in puddles, and can spend hours playing in the snow. It’s only we adults that find the weather bothersome. Fifth, kids are kids and the novelty of the treadmill will wear off after a few days. And finally….who here equates “treadmill” with “fun”? People call it the “dread mill” for a reason! I won’t judge the people who buy it; my judgement is reserved for the toy company that markets this thing as a “fun and fitness” tool. If you want “fun and fitness”, how about a soccer ball or a hula hoop or a skipping rope?”

Someone else noted, in my defense, that likely what made me sad was the thought that the treadmill could easily be used to make kids (girls especially) be forced into diet and exercise to fit societal thin standards far too young.

Truth be told, my thoughts were more like Savita’s. I’m concerned about the play deficit in our children’s lives, the lack of time spent outdoors in the wild. I’ve argued over at Impact Ethics that we shouldn’t think of debates about kids and physical activity just in terms of exercise. We should think about play and daily movement too.

Some people worry that kids are growing up without “physical literacy.” This includes skills such as balance and range of movement. Think of them as the building blocks of physical competence on which other skills are built. If you don’t acquire some of these skills in your childhood, you’re set up for a lifetime of inactive living. Dean Kriellaars is one of the leading experts in a movement called physical literacy. “A child that has low physical literacy skills has low confidence to perform any activity,” he said. “They have a very limited number of movements they can do well. And all of those bundled together blocks them from participating in any physical activity.”

Many children today lack basic balance skills, for example. When you fall you become less confident and more fearful and thus begins a vicious cycle of inactivity which starts with teachers and parents branding certain children “clumsy.” If you grow up without the basic skills needed to be active, it’s harder yet again to start as an adult.

I’m not sure treadmills help with this.

I got nervous about parents doling out TV and snacks only after children “earned” them by running in place.

But I should have considered the wide range of reasons parents might want a treadmill for their kids.

I also found out this week that neither treadmills for kids nor the debates about them are new. Here’s this from 2008, Mini Treadmills: Anti-Obesity Tool or Death of Playtime?

Parents and toy companies say the child-size equipment can get kids moving and teach a healthy habit. But exercise and child psychiatry experts say at the wrong age, for the wrong reasons, child exercise equipment may do more harm than good.

And Cranky Fitness considers both sides of the issue here.

 What do you think? Are treadmills for kids a good idea or a bad idea? What’s your worry exactly? If you think it’s good, is it always a good thing? 
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