Remember when childhood was synonymous with running, jumping, and playing games?
These days, kids spend more and more time parked in front of television, videogames, or computer screens. It shows. Since the 1980s, rates of childhood obesity have soared from 11% to 30% in developed nations. They’ve leaped from only 4% to 14% in the developing world -- proving that the problem of inactivity is a worldwide crisis.
The fatter kids are, the less healthy they’re likely to be. What can you do to encourage the whole family to become more active and a lot healthier? Plenty. “Sometimes the modern world seems to conspire to make us sedentary,” says Steven Blair, PhD, an expert in the epidemiology of exercise at the University of South Carolina. “But with a little creativity you can inspire the whole family to get up and become more active.”
Become an Active Role Model for the Kids
“We know from many studies that children are more likely to be active if their parents are active,” says Jennifer Huberty, PhD, associate professor of physical activity and health promotion at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Being active with your children, Huberty says, also helps give them confidence and teaches them the skills they need for a range of activities.
Behavioral scientists say one strategy to make exercise fun is to turn activity into a friendly competition. Family members can compete against one another or, in larger families, can divide into teams.
Rewards are also a great way to keep everyone motivated -- especially rewards that encourage activity, such as new running shoes or a cool new pedometer. Another trick is to make activity part of everyday life. Encourage kids to share in vigorous household chores. Plan vacations built around activities such as bicycling, canoeing, or hiking. Get into the habit of walking when you do errands, and encourage kids to join in.
8 Ways to Get Started on Family Fitness
Experts offer a few ways to get started:
- Turn chores into fitness challenges. Chores such as vacuuming, cutting the grass, washing the car, or cleaning out the basement burn extra calories and give muscles a workout. Plan a weekend day when the whole family pitches in. Make a game of it by offering a reward such as a movie or dinner at a favorite restaurant for a job well done.
- Explore your local parks. Most communities have parks where you can hike together as a family. Check online or with your local parks and recreation department for a complete list. Put a map of local parks on the refrigerator and challenge the family to visit every one over time.
- Walk the dog. Too many family dogs -- like their families -- are overweight. Dog walking offers a great opportunity for being active, one that benefits everyone. Encourage everyone to take turns or go together on dog walks. Don’t have a dog? Chances are you have elderly neighbors or people who travel who would welcome the offer to give their pooches a vigorous walk. Another option: volunteer to walk dogs at the local animal shelter.
- Dance, dance, dance. Whether it’s country & western or ballroom, dancing can be so much fun that it doesn’t even feel like exercise. Yet dancing burns calories and improves cardiovascular fitness. Many communities offer dance programs. If you have younger kids at home, all you have to do is put on some lively music with a great beat and throw your own dance party.
- Join up. Many gyms offer special family rates. Sign up and encourage the family to work out together. Set goals for each member of the family and keep a chart on the refrigerator to tally up the results. Fitness trainers can create individualized plans for each member of the family. Many gyms offer active childcare programs for the youngest family members, allowing an opportunity for those old enough to hit the treadmill or the lap pool.
- Step up your everyday activity level. If your kids love gadgets, buy everyone in the family a simple pedometer (a strap-on device that counts steps). “Challenge the family to see who can tally up the most steps during the week,” Huberty suggests. “Or set a goal for the whole family to contribute their share. Keep track of the results on your refrigerator.”
- Assign an activity director. Each week, assign one member of the family to be the activity director. The task: choose an activity that the whole family will try. Encourage the family to take on something new, whether it’s bicycling, bowling, rollerblading, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, ice-skating, or playing Frisbee.
- Plan an active vacation. Make reservations to stay at hotels or motels with swimming pools or other options for activities. Take the family camping and hiking. If you plan to explore a city, decide on city walks that you can take together every day.
Whatever you choose, the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that kids engage in at least one hour of aerobic activities a day. At least three days a week those activities should be vigorous. Young people should also shoot for doing muscle-strengthening activities at least three days a week.
That may seem like a tall order, especially for kids hooked on videogames or computer pastimes. But the benefits of becoming more active as a family are enormous. Studies show that active children and adolescents are fitter, have stronger bones, better cardiovascular health, lower risk of developing insulin resistance, and overall healthier body composition. They’re also more self-confident and less prone to suffering depression.