Why is using exercise as a punishment ineffective?  What's wrong with having kids run laps, or do some push-ups?  There are frequent news stories about childhood obesity, so why don’t we recommend using exercise as a way to address acting-out behavior?

Let’s talk for a moment about the difference between consequences and punishment.  As James Lehman says “You can’t punish kids into doing acceptable behavior.  Consequences are a preferred response to inappropriate behavior because they establish a sense of right and wrong.” In other words, punishment is designed to make a kid “hurt” in the hopes that they will remember that hurt and hopefully not do it again.  Consequences, on the other hand, are designed to help a child learn from their wrongdoing, and to see what he or she can do differently the next time a similar situation comes up.

Using exercise as a response to child behavior problems is more of a punishment, as it generally pushes a child to the point of exhaustion or, at the very least, soreness, in the hopes that the child will remember that physical strain and not do things like lie or refuse to do chores next time.  The trouble with this is that the child is not learning what is intended.  Let's say your child curses at you and you decide to have him run laps. To paraphrase James, this is ultimately ineffective because your child is learning how to run miles rather than what he can do instead of cursing at you next time he feels frustrated.  (For more information about how to help your child learn better behavior through more effective consequences, check out our Consequences section on EP.)

The other issue with using exercise to address child misbehavior is that it can be dangerous.  There have been stories in the news recently about parents, coaches and schools using things like running, push-ups or other exercises to address behaviors like tardiness, lying or general disrespect in children.  These types of punishments can have a wide range of physical effects, such as asthma attacks, dehydration, joint problems, heat exhaustion, seizures — or even death.

Another long-term effect of these types of punishments is that your child will grow to hate exercise.  While this is not as immediate or shocking as the possible short-term effects are, aversion to exercise can be harmful to your child’s overall health as it is generally accepted that moderate daily physical activity is a healthful habit to adopt, and can actually be a good coping mechanism to help handle stress and frustration.

Now, don't get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with taking a walk or encouraging your child to go outside and play basketball to help calm down.  But using exercise as the main way to address your child’s acting-out behavior  is unlikely to get you the results you're looking for in the long run — and might have some unforeseen side effects.

Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work


Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated EmpoweringParents Parent Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.

Comments (4)
  • Guest
    I’ve read through this and it is entirely true. I was raised on exercise as punishment and let me tell u that I hate working out. I hate it with a passion and every time I try, it just feels like I’m being punished. So every time a parent readsMore this please understand that if you compare anything with punishments, it’s going to feel like a punishment for the rest of our life.
  • guest11122
    The idea of constantly discussing what a child has done wrong, and holding back a punishment is the main problem.  A child works on instant gratification.  To say that exercise isn't effective is completely incorrect.  If you pair the exercise with speaking to the child about how to appropriately behaveMore then you have started a proper path for the child to improve.  If you notice the increase of crime, violent behavior, and disrespect amongst younger generations, it is also followed by the only side by side of the "don't punish speak to your kids" philosophy.  I do agree when compared to spanking this is a better and healthier option.  The only issue might be those who take it to extremes, but if done correctly the child will build confidence along side doing what is right.  If you look at how WWII generation was raised and how they raised their children, then compare how the "speak to your child only" generations behave it is night and day.  You cant tell me that with physical exercise you are harming a child.  The military has done this for hundreds of years, and turned 17yr - early 20yr olds from immature punks into respectable adults.  The statistics speak for volumes from generation to generation.
  • Alison
    Your idea is so sensible and innovative. Yeah, I agree to having my kids being punished through exercise. It doesn't propose any negativity to me and I believe it promotes a healthier lifestyle and it is indeed better compared to spanking or shouting. Reprimanding had been cliche-ic and the tendencyMore is always leading to repetitive misdemeanor. I guess some physical activity won't do any harm to them, the more, great benefits are just waiting. :)
  • JackieSaulmonRamirez

    I just went over the difference between punishment and consequences with parents. Punishment is when the parent has some type of gratification. Clearly, the mother and grandmother were grossly undereducated on the matter.

    [I miss James still. I was telling my daughter about him yesterday...]

Advertisement for Empowering Parents Total Transformation Online Package
Like What You're Reading?
Sign up for our newsletter and get immediate access to a FREE eBook, 5 Ways to Fix Disrespectful Behavior Now
We will not share your information with anyone. Terms of Use