Whip Your Family Into Shape


As study after study has shown, most Americans are obese and out of shape, and their bad habits are being passed along to the next generation.

"An increasing number of kids are overweight, and if no intervention is made, 80% of them will stay overweight as adults," says Dr. Vincent Iannelli, a pediatrician who operates a Web site called keepkidshealthy.com. "This makes it important for the whole family to eat well and exercise together. Parents have much more influence over their children than they generally believe, and if the parents are also involved in regular physical activity and are good role models, then their child is more likely to be active too." And the opposite can be true, he says. "If the parents are inactive and have a poor diet, then this gives the child little motivation to change his habits."

Perhaps the most difficult step in embracing a healthier lifestyle is making sure everyone in the family gets enough exercise. Start encouraging your children when they are young to make physical activity a regular part of their day. Give them responsibility around the house, such as cleaning floors or raking leaves. Anything that gets the heart pumping faster can be beneficial as long as kids enjoy it.

"I think the success of a child's exercise program requires that it be fun," says Chad Tackett, a health and fitness professional in Portland, Ore., "and it should be something they look forward to and feel good about afterward. When they become bored, make slight changes in their routine to keep it exciting." He recommends finding activities that can be viewed as fun rather than a chore. "You enjoy the immediate pleasure of doing the activity, and over time you realize improved health and well-being," he says.

Tackett advises parents to pace the level of activity so no one gets cranky and the fun of doing something as a family isn't spoiled. It's important to ensure that everyone will want to do the activity on a regular basis, so don't rush things. And remember to keep everything you do as much fun as possible. Here are some tips to help make those family exercise times something that everyone looks forward to:

  • Make sure the activities are ones that everyone can participate in. Choose things that fit your family's lifestyle and interests. Whether it's hiking, swimming, or tennis, find something that puts a smile on everyone's face.
  • Be flexible with scheduling. Don't make it a "do or die" activity, and take into account that sometimes schedules change at the last minute.
  • Remember to warm up and cool down, either by doing a few stretching exercises before the activity, or simply walking for a few minutes at the beginning and end.
  • Encourage each other. When someone in your family does something new, for example, such as swimming a lap around the pool without stopping, give them a high-five and a hearty "well done!" When kids feel good about what they are doing, they'll keep it up and set new goals for themselves.
  • Keep a log of your family's fitness activities. You'll find that if you do, everyone will want to join in and track their individual progress as well as find new ways for the family to stay fit together.
  • You don't have to spend a lot of money to become physically fit and healthy as a family. It just takes willpower, the motivation to say "yes" instead of "later."

Activities for Families

While playing organized sports is always a good way to stay fit as a family, don't limit yourselves to just football, baseball, basketball, and other ballgames. Just tossing a Frisbee around on a Sunday afternoon is a great way to get started. Maybe the whole family can take karate lessons at the local Y. Or combine household chores and exercise. Hold contests to see who can sweep the carpets the fastest, or wax the floors, or rake the leaves. Finding something that holds everyone's interest and will make it easier to sustain an active lifestyle.

Flexibility is the key to any successful exercise and fitness program, especially one that you are trying to do as a family. Remember to choose some activities that don't take a lot of extra time and can be done in a variety of settings. Here are some other family activity suggestions:

  • Hiking. Combine a hike with a nature lesson.
  • Running. Be sensitive to everyone in the family, and don't begin by running as if you are trying out for the Olympics. Make sure everyone has proper running shoes.
  • Skiing. Try cross-country skiing, which is less expensive and can be done in a field behind your house. Bring some hot chocolate and other snacks to make it a fun outing.
  • Canoeing. Follow all safety rules, and make sure everyone wears a life preserver.
  • Dancing. Have your children teach you the latest dance craze, or enroll in a class at your local Y or community center.
  • Swimming. A day at the beach or pool can be a fun time for families who like swimming.
  • Biking. Always remember to wear bicycle helmets and follow basic bicycle safety and traffic rules.
  • Horseback riding. Contact a local stable to see if they offer family rides.
  • Walking. Yes, even an after-dinner walk around the neighborhood can be good exercise, but it will probably work best with small children, as any parents of teenagers can tell you.
  • Aerobics. Try renting an aerobic exercise tape from your local video store, or enroll in a class at your local Y or community center.
  • Ice-skating. Using an established indoor or outdoor rink is the safest way to go. Check to see if they offer any discounts for families or groups.
  • Roller skating / blading. Remember to have everyone wear helmets, kneepads, and elbow pads to avoid injuries.
  • Snow shoeing. This can be fun, especially if you have small children.

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