If you have children under 18, sleep is probably much higher on your to-do list -- you know, the one you never get time to write down -- than an hour at the gym. You'd like to lose weight and get fit, but it's hard enough just to fit all your work and family duties into the day. If you're like many of us, you think you simply don't have time to work out.
The truth, experts say, is that you don't have time not to work out.
Once you start following a regular fitness routine, you'll actually have more energy to get through your long list of daily duties. Further, when you don't move your body, you lose strength and flexibility, says Shirley Archer, author of The Strength and Toning Deck: 50 Exercises to Shape Your Body. That can make it even harder to keep up with your kids. Exercise has still more perks for parents: It can relieve stress, improve your mood, and make you less likely to become depressed.
Even more important, when you lead an active lifestyle, you help inspire your children to be active, says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist and vice president of educational services for the American Council on Exercise.
"Our young people are less active than they've ever been," says Bryant, who estimates the average child spends about 30 hours a week watching television or playing video games.
The result of all this inactivity (along with too many calories) is evident in the ever-increasing rates of obesity among young children. Nearly 20% of children are overweight, Bryant says. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are showing up in young children. Type 2 diabetes, which is related to obesity, used to be called "adult-onset diabetes" because it almost never showed up until early middle age, says Bryant. "Now it's occurring among children," he says.
But just how do you fit exercise into a nonstop schedule? Well, if you can't beat them, join them. The answer for many busy parents, experts say, is to schedule exercise time with your children, not around them.
"It's no longer natural to move. It doesn't happen without us making an effort," Archer says. "It takes a little bit of strategic thinking to put activity back in our life.
"Family fitness is a wonderful way to do that."
Ideas for Family Fun
The key is to pick an activity that will work for everyone. The simplest option is to take a family walk, jog, or bike ride (using a backpack, jogging stroller, or kiddie seat for the youngest family members).
Experts agree that if you keep exercise fun and varied, you're more likely to keep at it. So here are some other suggestions:
Bond with baby. Many gyms and rec centers offer fitness programs designed for new mothers and their babies. For some, you place the baby beside you on a mat and include him or her in some of the exercises. For others, baby stays in a stroller.
If you're more comfortable exercising at home, Archer suggests using your infant as a prop or weight during floor exercises (you can find some exercise videos that demonstrate this). For example, put the baby on your chest and do gentle crunches.
- Get wet. People often think the pool is only for doing laps, but there are lots of ways to exercise in the water. Diving, doing headstands, and playing Marco Polo are all ways of getting exercise while having fun with your family. In a private pool, you can set up a net for a game of volleyball.
- Play time. Keep the focus on fun when you're exercising, says Archer. Try playing games that incorporate movement, such as Simon Says, Capture the Flag, hopscotch, jump rope, Hide and Seek, even water gun fights. With younger kids, head for a playground and climb the monkey bars, zip down the slides, hit the swings, and play chase.
- Boogie down. Lots of kids like to dance, and it can be great exercise, too. Archer says both parents and children take hip-hop dance classes at the Stanford Prevention Research Center where she works. If you're shy, just crank up the tunes in the privacy of your home and groove around the living room.
- Stretch it out. If you're not big on dancing, try a yoga video or "mommy and me" yoga class. With their natural flexibility, many kids are good at yoga. It also can help relieve stress, so it's great for mom and dad, too.
- Make tracks. Older kids might enjoy running or brisk walking, but if that bores them, try climbing, hiking, or rollerblading. If you live in an area that offers scenic places to hike, you won't even notice you're exercising (pack a healthy picnic to have at the end of the trail and bring plenty of water). Younger kids can ride their tricycles or bikes around a community track while you walk or jog.
- Be a sport. Taking up a sport can add a whole new dimension to your family fun, whether it's tennis, volleyball, or just a driveway basketball showdown. Consider taking lessons together if you're new to the sport. "Martial arts [are] a great cross-generational activity," Archer says.
When it comes to keeping fit, a little goes a long way. Bryant recommends that parents get about 30 minutes of exercise daily to maintain health, and an hour a day to lose weight. Children should get at least an hour of exercise a day.
But Bryant warns against doing too much too fast, which might lead you to abandon your fitness routine entirely. If you've been sedentary, start with 10-15 minutes of exercise a day. Move at a comfortable pace -- you want to get your heart rate up, but only to the point where you can still comfortably carry on a conversation.
"You've got to think of exercise like loose change in your pocket. Every little bit you do adds up and counts," Bryant tells WebMD.
Originally published August 4, 2004
Medically updated July 26, 2005.
What if your kids haven't been active lately and are reluctant to get moving? Talk about the health benefits of exercise, and they'll space out. Instead, focus on the fact that if they have more energy, they'll have more fun.
"Use external motivators, rewards like movie tickets," says Bryant. Just don't make the reward cookies and cake! When you make fitness a part of family time, it will become as natural as eating dinner together.