Engaging your kids in a health-promoting lifestyle should be a priority for every loving parent. But if you want trim and healthy kids, you have to get trim and healthy yourself. Studies show that family environment is one of the strongest predictors of childhood obesity. In one study, children of sedentary parents (a.k.a. couch potatoes) were more likely to gain weight and become overweight than children of active parents.
Some of the suggestions here may seem too easy to be considered exercise. But remember: You and your child burn more calories standing than sitting, walking than standing. The more you move, the more you burn. It doesn’t matter how wacky your antics, if you are moving and having fun, you’re burning calories and getting in shape. It’s that simple.
1. Go on a treasure hunt. Here’s a great way to keep the family fit and teach your kids about trust, teamwork, and problem solving at the same time. Take them to a local park and set an expedition course on a map, circling various “checkpoints.” Take turns navigating to each point on the map and leading the team to each destination. “Start out with an easy course in an open park and then progress to a trail system,” suggests Jenny Hadfield, a Chicago-based fitness coach and author of Marathoning for Mortals. “Stay together and explore terrain features, study map clues, and look for the secret treasure.” Sound too complicated? Then merely go hunting for bugs, animals, or flowers. You can’t entertain a young kid much better than finding a colorful salamander under a log or rock.
2. Plan 10-minute spurts of activity followed by 5-minute rest periods. Don’t force your adult exercise program on your children. That’s a recipe for disaster. Studies published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise show that forcing children to participate in structured exercise turns them off to exercise later in life. Instead, take advantage of their natural tendency to participate in intermittent and sporadic play and exercise bouts. A game of tag is a perfect example. Children’s bodies are designed to sprint and rest, sprint and rest. Because they are easily distracted and incapable of long periods of focused activity, they will resist long exercise sessions that don’t include rest periods.
3. Train for school fitness tests as a family. Learn which fitness tests your child is required to pass in physical education class and train for them as a family. Set goals, such as running a quarter-mile and then a half and then a full mile in a certain amount of time — and reward each family member for meeting each goal.
4. Hold a sports party. Rather than the typical pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey birthday party, hold your child’s birthday party in an active location, such as a roller-skating or ice-skating rink, laser tag center, wall-climbing gym, or indoor playground center. You don’t have to limit this to parties. A growing number of indoor playgrounds offer such structured games weekly. Or you can have your own “no particular reason” party. Kids won’t think of what they’re doing as exercise — but it is.
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5. Play follow the leader with one or more children. Line up single file and weave your way through the house or backyard. Every few steps, hop, skip, do the grapevine or some other movement that your followers must imitate. Once the kids get the hang of the game, let them take turns as leader. Their naturally creative minds will come up with all sorts of fun movements for the followers to imitate. You’ll be out of breath before you know it.
6. Purchase some family-friendly aerobics tapes for cold or rainy days. Choose tapes that describe the workout as “low intensity” or “low impact” says Melinda S. Sothern, Ph.D., director of the Prevention of Childhood Obesity Lab at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and author of Trim Kids. These types of aerobic exercise are better for children’s developing bodies. Good options include Elmocize, Workout with Mommy and Me, the Richard Simmons series, YogaKids, and Tae Bo Junior.
7. Give your child a head start — and race around the house. You can do the same with calisthenics. You do 10 crunches, and your child does 5. See who can complete them first.
8. Spend an hour doing yard work together. Raking leaves, pulling weeds, and spreading out mulch all help to build strength and endurance. Plus, when your kids help, it doesn’t take as long or seem as much of a chore (depending on the age of the child, of course). There are numerous ways to make yard work more fun for kids. For instance, when you finish raking a pile of leaves, you get to jump in them.
9. Wash the car together. The scrubbing is good exercise, but everyone getting wet and soapy is just plain fun for kids.
10. Give your kids a list of indoor chores — then join them. Younger children often like to feel helpful and will enjoy helping you with household chores. Ask them to help you make the beds, fold the laundry and put it away, set the table, and put dishes in the dishwasher — all physical activities that can help get your heart rate up, stretch your body, and build your
11. Join the President’s Challenge as a family. In this challenge, children and adults log daily physical activity levels and earn points for each activity. For details, go to presidentschallenge.org.