Staying fit and healthy is a family affair.
When parents support and encourage active kids, those children are healthier, less likely to be obese, and may even do better in school. Besides, when parents stay active themselves – despite pressures and time constraints of family life – they’re not only protecting their own well-being, but also setting a good example. Role modeling, family support and creating opportunities for activity all play an important part in kids’ fitness.
Read on to learn why getting enough exercise is vital for kids and how to help your whole family stay active and fit.
Why Kids’ Fitness Is Important
Regular physical activity with family involvement brings a variety of benefits:
- Better knowledge of exercise and nutrition. Third-graders who received nutrition and exercise instruction at school retained more of the information if the program included family involvement, according to a 2005 study at Humboldt State University in California that was published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Kids whose families were involved also ate a significantly lower-fat diet.
- Better grades. Sixth-grade students who met cardiovascular fitness standards scored better on reading and math tests than students who were less fit, according to 2010 research at Illinois State University that was presented to a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Obese elementary school students scored lower on math tests than those who weren’t obese, according to a June 2012 study of more than 6,000 children conducted at the University of Missouri-Columbia and published in Child Development.
- Lasting lower cholesterol. Staying fit during adolescence is associated with lower body fat percentage, lower total cholesterol and improved HDL (“good”) cholesterol into young adulthood, according to a 2002 study at the University of Ulster in Ireland that was published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine.
- Better health. Both children and adults who spend 70% or more of their waking hours seated or in sedentary activities each day may face a higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who stay active, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
- Lower risk of obesity. Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Obese children have an increased risk of many health conditions, which may continue into their adult life. They include high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and asthma.
- General wellness. “Physical activity is a way to help kids develop overall well-being, as well as motor skills and even self-confidence,” Kohl says.
How to Get Your Family Off the Couch
Most families don’t meet the CDC’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends 60 minutes or more of daily activity for children, and at least 150 minutes of exercise each week for adults (30 minutes, five days a week).
For children, this includes moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking or running) three times a week, muscle strengthening (gymnastics or push-ups) three times a week, and bone-strengthening exercises (jumping rope or running) three times a week.
But 74% of American kids ages 5 to 10 don’t get that hour a day of exercise; 41% get less than an hour per week, according to a 2011 YMCA survey. About 80% of adults don’t stay active enough to meet their own physical activity requirements, according to 2010 CDC data.
So how can Mom, Dad and the kids get enough exercise? The following tips are recommended by Keith Veselik, M.D., a pediatrician, internist and director of primary care at Loyola University Health System in Chicago.
Decrease screen time.
Children in the U.S. spend an estimated 25% of their waking hours watching TV, and even more on computers and cell phones, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).
You can reduce that by designating “blackout periods,” when no one in the house is allowed to be on the computer or watching TV. When the TV, computer, cell phone and video games are off, children will automatically become more active, either physically (by playing) or mentally (reading, writing, music, etc.)
Go for walks or bike rides in your neighborhood, at a local park or on nature trails. You’ll get the family to stay active and have some family bonding time.
Join sports programs for kids or the whole family.
Take advantage of your local community programs, sports leagues, YMCA courses and school intramurals. If your kids find a sport they enjoy, getting them to stay active will be easier.
Encourage your kids and their friends to play active games and/or join them.
Games such as hide-and-seek, tag or jumping rope improve fitness without feeling like “exercise.” Two-thirds of parents in the YMCA survey said they played with their kids every day, but they were mostly sedentary card or board games. Active games or family sports will help both parents and kids get enough exercise, and will teach kids that activity can be fun.
Toss a ball or Frisbee around in the backyard. A simple game of catch provides a cardiovascular workout and improves hand-eye coordination.
Set a family fitness challenge.
Encourage kids and adults to earn a Presidential Active Lifestyle Award by committing to physical activity five days a week for six weeks, suggests the U.S. government’s “Let’s Move” family-health program.
Bowling is an inexpensive night out for the family that involves strength and coordination.
A treasure-hunt game in which you plug coordinates into a GPS (global positioning system) device or smart phone, then hike to a destination where someone’s hidden a prize. There are multiple locations available in most areas, so you can choose treks within your family’s fitness level.
Try fitness video games.
Playing on consoles that track users’ bodies – such as Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect – won’t replace more intense activities, but they require a lot more movement than games that leave the family on the sofa. Besides, games that involve sports or dancing can teach kids to enjoy being active.
Make sure your kids are getting enough exercise in school.
Ask the principal or kids’ teachers about which physical education programs and recess activities are offered. It’s important that parents ask about what can be done to get more physical activity in schools.
Your Kids’ Fitness Profile by Age
When it comes to staying fit, younger kids have different needs, skills and interests than older kids. Here’s what to look for in each age group:
- Ages 3-6: Children this age will naturally play if given the opportunity. Start with visits to the neighborhood park or playground, or install a backyard swing set. They’ll also love joining parents on a bike ride through a safe area, either being pulled in a trailer or sitting in a child seat. (Make sure they wear a helmet.) The kids learn to enjoy bicycling, while the adults get to stay active.
- Ages 7-10: This is a great age to encourage children to join teams and try different activities, giving them a chance to find out which they like. Don’t worry if they get bored with one activity and switch to another. Parents can get involved by coaching, helping with practice at home and going to the games to cheer.
- Ages 11-13: At this age, children tend to concentrate on one sport, and parents should be mindful of overuse injuries and burnout. Or they may start to drift out of organized team sports. Then parents should help them get enough exercise by encouraging other activities, such as biking, hiking or swimming.
- Ages 14-18: As kids’ skills approach adult levels, teens and parents can start playing together in many sports (tennis, for example). But finding family time may be a challenge, because teens become busy with their own activities and may prefer to spend time with their friends, not family. If you start a pattern of family activities when children are younger, it’s easier to encourage them to participate when they reach their teens.
Fitness Advice for Busy Parents
Time constraints, child-raising tasks, jobs, stress and fatigue can put physical activity far down the adults’ to-do list. But you can stay active while running the household. Experts recommend these steps:
Create a child-safe home workout area. Exercising at home can save time and provide flexibility. But you’ll need to take precautions when young children are around.
- If possible, keep equipment in a room you can lock when you’re not using it.
- If you want to use a treadmill or other fitness machine in an open area, buy a model that works only when a safety stop key is inserted. That prevents a child from operating it. Keep weights, balance boards and colorful fitness balls locked away in a closet. They’re attractive to children but can lead to injury.
- Make sure young kids won’t wander into your workout zone when you’re exercising with potentially hazardous equipment.
Break down workouts into three 10-minute sessions.
Ten minutes of activity three times a day produces the same health benefits of 30 continuous minutes, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. In the middle of a busy day, it’s often easier to find time for a 10-minute walk with the kids than a 30-minute hike.
Use what’s available. You can get few minutes of exercise practically anywhere. For example, when you’re on the phone, put your back against the nearest wall and do squats as you talk. Or do calf raises by rising up and down on the balls of your feet on the edge of a stair.
Find a park with equipment for adults and children. In places such as Tudor Square Park in Trent, Wash., play facilities include adult-friendly options, such as fitness stations, walking paths and balance and flexibility apparatus. These allow you to stay active with your kids instead of sitting on a bench and watching them.
Be an active spectator. Combine your workout with your children’s activities. For example, when you attend a kid’s ballgame, find time to walk or jog around the field or walk up and down bleachers.
Take a commercial break. Drop and do push-ups with your kids while you’re all watching TV. Exercising during commercials accomplishes two things: It helps you get in 30-60 seconds of exercise, which add up, and it keeps you from automatically going to the refrigerator for snacks.
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