By Marie Wolf
Family fitness doesn't have to mean joining a health club or starting a strict exercise regimen. Everyday tasks, such as washing the car, or playtime fun, such as tossing a Frisbee®, can make fitness part of family life rather than another item on your "to do" list.
There's no doubt, we're a nation of couch potatoes. Many of us have put fitness on the back burner for far too long. The frantic pace between work, school and home leaves little time for most families to eat a meal together, much less get to the gym. Still, with most of us burning the candle at both ends, why aren't we burning off the calories?
The answer lies in how we unwind. After a long, stress-filled day, parents and kids alike look for ways to relax. For many, that means vegging out in front of the TV, playing a video game or surfing the Web - not exactly burning the calories or getting the heart pumping. Too much of this sedentary downtime, coupled with our over-consumption of high-calorie food and drink, has led to our well-publicized obesity epidemic.
We're all familiar with Nike's "Just do it!" ad campaign. But the question for many families today is "How?" How do you encourage and model being more physically active? How do you get your kids out the door when they'd rather sit in front of the TV or computer? How do you make fitness fun and easy for the whole family?
Get on your feet, form a pact with your whole family to get in shape together and make the move toward a healthier lifestyle. That doesn't necessarily mean scheduling a workout plan. Family fitness can be fun, easy and an integral part of every day. The key to enjoying and sticking with it is to get active together.
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Is So Important
America's bulging waistline isn't going away, despite the headlines, campaigns and public health initiatives urging us to eat better and exercise more.
Obesity among men, women and children in every state is on the rise, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, according to a 2003 report by the National Health Policy Forum (NHPF). More than 60 million adults, age 20 and over, had a body mass index (BMI) - a measure of weight in relation to height - of 30 or greater during the years 1999 to 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That's a 7 percent increase just since 1994. Even more disturbing, the number of overweight children (ages 6 to 19) has tripled since 1980.
We know that being overweight isn't healthy. Along with an increased incidence in "adult onset" diabetes (in kids and adults alike), too much weight gain leads to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels.
"All of these conditions conspire to foster an earlier onset of heart attacks and strokes," notes Russell Robertson, M.D., who has practiced family medicine for the past 21 years and heads the department of family medicine at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Illinois. Obesity, Robertson says, may also lead to degenerative arthritis, which destroys the joints and lessens mobility.
It's not good for us emotionally, either. Overweight kids, in particular, suffer from low self-esteem, depression and social discrimination. Worse, research has shown that an overweight adolescent has a 70 percent chance of becoming an overweight adult.
Weight loss aside, shaping up actually offers a host of benefits for every age.
"Physical activity improves bone density, and reduces blood pressure and cholesterol levels," says Cynthia LaBella, M.D., medical director of the Institute for Sports Medicine in Chicago. It is especially important for children, LaBella says. "They are actively growing and forming nerve connections" and movement enhances this.
Childhood is also prime time for developing good motor patterns, she adds. "Throwing a baseball is easier at 8, 9 or 10 years old, than it is at 20, 21 or 22. Your brain is primed at a younger age."
Being active enhances self-esteem, body image and overall well-being. Furthermore, exercising with the family provides a safe, emotional environment for kids, because they are less likely to be ridiculed by peers about their performance level, LaBella explains. "Working out together enhances so many aspects of the family relationship. It gives parents the opportunity to praise their kids and show them they are proud of their efforts."
- Marie Wolf
"Parents need to lead by example," says Julia Sweet, author of 365 Activities for Fitness, Food and Fun for the Whole Family. "They can't sit on the couch and expect children to get in shape by themselves."
Make It Fun
Have we forgotten how to play? Think back to your own childhood and envision the days of kickball, hopscotch, tag, whatever. Running, jumping and skipping were second nature to most of us. We didn't think about the fitness factor. It was strictly about having fun - little did we know that breaking a sweat could be beneficial to our health. Shouldn't we allow today's children to have that same mindset - fitness for the fun of it?
"The emphasis should not be so much about fighting obesity. It's more about making people healthier," says Sweet. Known as the "Fitness Mom"™, Sweet is a world aerobics champion, former NFL cheerleader, fitness trainer and mother of two who believes in "creating wellness" in the home. She and her husband, Jon, make a conscious effort to ensure that their children eat right, get enough sleep and stay away from the TV. But they also make a point of joining their kids in physical activity.
"If the family is active every day, it creates a pattern. It could be kite flying one day, a long walk another day. Don't obsess about fat grams and calories burned," Sweet says. "Think about family togetherness and remember: whatever you're doing, the kids will do it longer if you're out there with them." Here are a couple of fun, inexpensive family fitness ideas Sweet offers in her book:
- Hula Hoopla - Recreate a "sock-hop" with some '50s music and a hula hoop for each member of the family. Making hip circles with the hoop works the stomach muscles, Sweet points out. See who can hula hoop the longest or the fastest.
- Lost Sneaker Race - Everyone takes off their sneakers and puts them in a pile at the far end of the yard. On your mark, sprint back to the pile, dig for your sneakers, slip them on, tie them and run back to the starting line.
- Stadium Stampede - Head to your local high school or college stadium (sneakers are a must for this activity) and have each member of the family run up the first section of stadium stairs and down the next set. See how far around the stadium the family can go. Or, stay on solid ground and compete in a "wind sprint." Players stand back-to-back on the running track and run in the opposite direction as fast as they can. Who will make it half-way around the track first? Go full circle and you've completed one full lap.
Don't Let Your Surroundings Limit You
Adding physical activity can be more difficult if you're hemmed-in by your living environment. But don't be discouraged. While you may not have much yard space or be comfortable riding bikes with your kids around busy neighborhood streets, a little foresight can go a long way.
If your environment limits your options, "then you need to make arrangements," says Sweet. Sign your kids up for after-school activities or visit your local Boys and Girls Club of America, where low-cost sports and recreation programs are offered. On weekends, head out to a local park as a family for bike riding or an impromptu soccer match or softball game.
Of course, weather - from long, cold winters to heavy rain season - can also impede a family's commitment to fitness. When this is the case, author and movement educator Rae Pica suggests putting that old proponent of passivity - the TV - to use. There are some dance video games on the market that will get the whole family up and moving. Pica suggests Dance Dance Revolution, a popular music video and foot-pad game that challenges players to keep up with dance steps to a particular tune. (See www.ddrgame.com for more details.)
Encourage, Don't Enforce
"Fitness is fleeting," says Pica, author of Your Active Child and founder of the "Moving and Learning" series of recordings for kids. If we impose a strict exercise regimen on our children, she believes, they're more likely to abandon it as soon as they're old enough to make the choice themselves.
"Parents need to initiate games in a fun, encouraging way, and early childhood is the best time to get children moving," Pica says. "Even 3- and 4-year-olds can boogie to a lively piece of music. They can run and jump for bubbles. Take them outside and give them space to just run."
To keep the family moving together, Pica suggests a stroll through the neighborhood, playing "I Spy" as you walk, or a trip to the beach, where the little ones can dig in the sand (great for the upper torso), while the older children play volleyball. Chores count, too. Washing the family car or raking leaves will help keep everyone in shape. The key is to do it together.
Start Off on the Right Foot
If you decide to embark on a more structured fitness regimen as a family - whether it's biking or jogging together, taking an exercise class or picking up a sport - be sure to pay a visit to your family physician. Your doctor can assess each family member's weight, blood pressure, cholesterol level and risk for diabetes. Beyond that, Cynthia LaBella, M.D., director of the Institute for Sports Medicine at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital, reminds us to "stay hydrated and carve out 10 minutes on either end of a workout for a warm up, to get the muscles ready, and a cool down, to stretch."
Marie Wolf is a freelance writer whose family runs and bikes to stay in shape.
- 365 Activities for Fitness, Food and Fun for the Whole Family, by Julia Sweet, Contemporary Books, 2001. Packed with nutritious, kid-inspired recipes, suggestions for creative yard games and low-cost activities designed to bring the family closer while shaping up. Learn more at www.FitnessMom.com.
- Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional and Cognitive Development Through Age-Appropriate Activity, by Rae Pica, Contemporary Books, 2003. Provides age-appropriate advice on how to get children moving, learning and loving it, early in life. Learn more at www.MovingandLearning.com
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - - Offers a report, "Safe Routes to School: Practice and Promise," that provides tips on starting a walking/biking to school program.
- The President's Challenge - Encourages Americans of all ages to shape up. The Web site features a list of nearly 100 activities of various skill levels to choose from.
- Shape Up America! - Features tips on fitness and weight management. Choose from dozens of free or low-cost outdoor activities the whole family will enjoy.