Body Wise

Make Fitness a Fun, Quality Time for the Family

by Debbe Geiger

Family Fitness Resources

• Fit Families, Fit Kids. Includes numerous resources and monthly calendars with seasonal suggestions for families who want to stay fit.

• For Sport and Physical Education offers a downloadable brochure, 99 Tips for Family Fitness. or call

• Toucanz Trail Obstacle Adventure ($17.95 for DVD; $14.95 for VHS), contains ideas on setting up obstacle courses at home.

Being active comes naturally to Alexander Bruni. When he’s not playing soccer, karate or T-ball, the 5-year-old is at the park with his dad, kicking balls around, playing tag or hitting a few baseballs. While they’re having fun together, Paul Bruni says he’s also teaching Alexander a valuable lesson: Exercise is fun, and it’s an important part of daily life.

“Kids are like sponges that absorb everything,” says Bruni, who owns a personal training studio. “My son sees his dad and mom exercising all the time. Even at a young age, we’d put him in the baby jogger and take him for power walks or jogs. I’d go rollerblading. Although he wasn’t doing anything physical, it laid the foundation for what would become part of his lifestyle. It was a fun experience for him. And he spent time with Mommy and Daddy.”

Quality Time
Exercising is a great way for busy families to enjoy quality time together while keeping fit. “There’s always a struggle for parents to spend enough time with their children,” says Kathe Burlage, a fitness instructor. Any activity beats sitting around the television. “The key is letting your child know that having an active lifestyle and staying healthy is a fun choice.”

That’s important as obesity rates are on the rise for kids and adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, GA, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight. The CDC reports that 15.3 percent of children ages 6-11 and 15.5 percent of adolescents ages 12-19 are overweight. That’s double the proportion of overweight children and teens from two decades ago. Carrying that extra weight around puts everyone at increased risk for chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. “We have an epidemic in our society,” says Ronald Marino, DO, a pediatrician.

For the most part, the rise in obesity is due to unhealthy food choices and a sedentary lifestyle. Nearly half of American adults report they are not active at all, and only about half of American young people between the ages of 12 and 21 participate in vigorous physical activity on a regular basis.

“This inactivity is one of the biggest contributors to obesity over a lifetime,” says George M. Graham, PhD, president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a non-profit group based in Reston, VA. Its mission is to educate the public about the importance of physical education for all youth.

An Hour a Day
Children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to Janet Collins, PhD, acting director of the CDC’s Adolescent and School Health Division. Instead, they’re spending five hours per day, on average, in front of a screen, whether it’s watching television, using a computer or playing on a video game device.

Daily physical activity lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, helps prevent osteoporosis and can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and arthritis. Getting active “is an investment in youth,” says Marino. “It saves them from ridicule as adolescents and chronic diseases as they get older.”

School physical education programs aren’t enough. “Fewer schools are offering daily opportunities for phys-
ical activities,” says Collins. “Physical education programs are being cut back and replaced with more academic time. Even in the best of circumstances, the kids are only active for 20 or 30 minutes in a school day. It’s pretty clear that in addition to the school day, more activity is needed.”

Parents’ Role
That’s where you come in. “Parents have to role model that activities are fun,” says Marino. Kids “don’t just pick up on what you say. They pick up on what you do. If you don’t want to walk, swim or ride a bike, the kids don’t want to do it either.”

Bruni agrees. “Kids follow whatever example the parents create for them. If you want your child to be exercising, you better be doing something or you end up becoming a hypocrite in the eyes of your children.”

They key to getting you and your family moving is to find fun and enjoyable activities for everyone. Here are some suggestions for achieving your goal, and making fitness a fun, lifestyle choice for the entire family:

Be democratic. Forcing your kids to take part in activities they don’t enjoy will only cause rebellion, says Bruni. Instead, call a family meeting at which everyone can discuss the activities they would like to pursue. Offer a few suggestions, such as hiking, biking, bowling or golf. Invite ideas from everyone. Don’t stick to just one activity; consider them all.

Keep your child in mind. Choosing activities that are age-appropriate is important when determining the fun factor. Stick with things that match children’s coordination level and age groups. Stay away from competitive activities, suggests Burlage. Instead, select activities at which kids can feel successful and that will boost their self-confidence.

Set aside specific days for different activities. Grab a ball on Monday and head for the park. Spend Tuesdays biking around the neighborhood. Make a walk your Wednesday activity. Go for a family swim on Sundays. Continuity makes habits easy to form.

Join a family-friendly community center or health club. Increasingly, health clubs are open to the idea of families working out together, says Brooke MacInnis, a spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. YMCAs and other centers offer family programs in music, swimming, basketball and dance. Find out what’s offered at fitness centers near you.

Try a youth program. Scout groups often encourage kids to earn badges that promote fitness. In many cases, parents are expected to get involved on hikes, camping trips and other physical adventures.

Check out something new. Whether it’s yoga, karate, skiing, learning to skateboard or starting a garden, broaden your child’s horizons and your own by introducing activities you can do together.

Recognize exercise in every form. “Think of activity as walking to school, walking around the mall, walking up a flight of stairs,” says Marino. Take everyday chores such as gardening, shoveling or even doing the laundry and turn them into family exercises that get hearts pumping and feet moving.

Set up an obstacle course. Jump through hula hoops, crawl under lawn chairs, jump rope five times, climb over a slide. Let your child use his imagination (with a little input from you) to create an exciting obstacle course in your backyard, and then time yourself against your child. You’ll help improve motor coordination, gain confidence, and build a sense of competences.

Stay safe. Just as you are a role model for physical activity, you are also a role model for safety, indoors and outside. If you don’t want to wear a bike helmet, neither will your child. Protect yourself and your child by wearing the proper gear when doing any physical activity.

Debbe Geiger is a freelance writer.