HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Making fitness a family affair

Keeping it simple and fun is the key to making fitness part of the family routine.

By GreatSchools Staff

Children learn from the example that parents provide: If you read, they'll read; If you eat healthy food, they 'll eat healthy food; and if you exercise regularly, so will they. Or better yet, why not get everybody to engage in physical fitness activities together? The key to successful family fitness is to keep it simple and fun for everyone. Make your activities a family tradition that everyone will look forward to.

Even moderate physical activity (combined with a healthy diet) will help protect members of your family from heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Physical fitness activities are a great way to relieve stress (i.e., fewer sibling fights) and send oxygen to the brain, which means exercising regularly could help keep peace at home and boost academic performance.

Before you start on your renewed commitment to fitness, be sure that everyone in your family has the go-ahead from your family doctor. Always increase your physical activity gradually to avoid straining muscles and injury. Be sure to stretch and drink plenty of water, too.

Simple activities for getting fit

You don't have to join a gym or spend a lot of money to stay fit. All you need are a good pair of athletic shoes, and if you must, some inexpensive equipment — a ball, rope, and stick — and off you go! Get the whole family involved in these simple and fun physical fitness activities in the great outdoors.

Aim for 10,000 steps a day

The U.S. surgeon general recommends that everyone walk or run at least 10,000 steps a day. What a great way to use your math skills while keeping fit!

Buy a simple pedometer and have each member of the family wear it for a day and then compare notes on how many steps you walked. Talk about how you could gradually increase that number. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

When possible take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator. Walk instead of driving, especially for short distances.

Don't park too close to your destination. When you go to the mall or the grocery store, park far away from the store in the parking lot. This will force everyone to walk a little more.

Do chores together. Wash the car, rake some leaves, work in the garden.

Take the family on a walk. Make a habit of taking a family walk in the neighborhood, in or around a park or to a destination (the mailbox, your school, a friend's house). Or incorporate one of these types of transport into your neighborhood tour: roller skates, rollerblades, bicycles or skateboards. (Be sure to wear helmets and the necessary padding.)

Take a walk or run on a local school track. Count your laps!

Get on your bikes and go. Biking is a great family activity. You can start out on short neighborhood rides and build up to rides on local bike trails. Be sure everyone wears a helmet for safety. To learn about some great places to bike as a family, and how to select the right equipment, check out GORP's Family Biking resource.

Go on a treasure hunt in your neighborhood. Compile a list of "simple treasures" to hunt for on your walk: a leaf with beautiful colors, a shiny penny, a can to be recycled. Or make a list of things to notice as you walk: Find a house with a red door. Look for a specific kind of car parked in a driveway. What else might you hunt for? Have everyone in your family contribute "treasures" to hunt for on your list.

Play catch. It may sound simple, but try some of these variations or create your own:

  • Play catch with different sizes and shapes of balls, or a Frisbee.
  • Play catch at gradually increasing distances.
  • Play paddle ball.
  • Have an old-fashioned egg toss. Start close and gradually increase your distance in throwing the egg from one person to another.
  • Play footbag (also known as "Hacky Sack"). Check out the rules here.

Take a walk with the American Volkssport Association (AVA). The AVA's network of 350 walking clubs organizes more than 3000 walking events per year in all 50 states, as well as occasional bikes, skis and swims.

The club, run almost completely by volunteers, has branches in cities across the United States and Europe. They schedule trail walk events where groups walk together in rural and urban areas, many at sites of historical interest or fun places like the local zoo. New members are welcome but you don't have to be a member to participate in one of their walks.

The walks range in difficulty, from one (easiest) to five (hardest) and all ages are welcome. Generally, a flier and map are provided, with commentary on what you will see as you walk. Most walks are six miles or less, and take an hour or two at most to complete. The walks, generally free of charge, are fun to do in places close to home, as well as when you travel. "We have walks in lots of fun places," says AVA Executive Director Jackie Wilson. "You can learn what a city is really about when you take one of our walks. The guided walks even note points of interest, such as the best ice cream places!"

AVA also publishes a book of self-guided trails, called the Year-Round Event Book. Achievement-oriented types can enroll in the group's Individual Achievement Award Program. You can purchase a Distance and Event Record Book for $5 at any event. For every walk that you complete, you get a stamp. There are prizes for completing 10 events, 30 events, 50 events, 500 kilometers, 1,000 kilometers, etc. You can also redeem your Record Book for a Certificate of Achievement, a patch and a hatpin, and your accomplishment is printed in The American Wanderer, their national publication.

To get started, check the AVA Web site to find a club near you.

Comments from readers

"On your next walk with your kids or family compete to see who can fill a grocery sack of garbage first. Talk with them about how good it feels to clean up our world and get exercise while doing it. Then whoever gets the most or fills theirs first gets out of helping with the dish's, setting the table or picks out the book, T.V., game, whatever it is your going to do that night. My daughters favorite is getting to help me make dinner. Go figure she doesn't realize it's being helpful. She just knows she's getting one on one attention with mom. :)"
"Have you heard about pickleball - the number one activiies? It is a simple game played on a badminton size court, two paddles and a whiffle ball. Everyone can have a degree of success almost mmediately in playing the game. We have written two books - Drilling for Success in Pickleball and Teaching for Success in Picklebal which would be beneficial in teaching this activity. Check out our blog site for more information. Thanks Sandy and Mary"
"'Why not let the kids stay up a half-hour later on family fitness night? That way it becomes something special, a privilege that they will look forward to. ' I don't think it is a good idea to let kids go to bed late to have a 'fitness' activity. Irregular sleeping schedule does more harm than good to kids. Doing special things should not affect normal sleep schedule and parents should not encourage kids to think sleep late is a privilege to earn. "
"my daughter is very smart. she catches on to things very quickly. the problem is that she does very poorly on her test. i notice she gives answers without much forethought or without really trying to understand the instructions, thus making allot of unnecessary mistakes. please help!!! i fear she is going to fail 3RD grade because of this."
"your ideas are great and simle too....some of them we have started implementing such as to walk in the playgroud ...where i teach my 4 yea old daughter cycling without supporting wheels and my 2 and half year old son run after us ...which is such a great pleasure to refreshes us all from the daily routine activities..thanks rajni"
"I wanted to be a good role model for my daughter so I started training for triathlons when she was just 2 years old. My daughter is now 4. She takes swimming lessons and she rides her 2- wheel bike (with training wheels) 3 miles while I run beside her. I wear a heart rate moniter so I can see what a great workout I'm getting. I actually burned 517 calores in the 64 min. it took for us to make the 3- mile loop to our house. We even stop and play at the playground before heading home. My daughter loves it! Just last week, my daughter told me she wants to work at the gym when she grows up. I asked her what she wants to teach and she said, 'swimming.' Kids keep us young. Everybody should find being active more fun with kids around. "
"These family fitness ideas are wonderful. I can't wait for my kids to get home from school in order to try them out. The thing I like most is that your suggestions truly are simple and it just doesn't take much to create a fun and fit approach to parenting! Thank you! "
"This is great!!! I've been looking for ideas on how to get my children more active. I'm saving a copy of this article and placing an order for Rose Kennedy's book before the end of the night!!! "
"My son, aged 12, asked for a tether ball set for Christmas and we have gotten a lot of arm and shoulder exercise with this fun, and sometimes forgotten game."
"GREAT! I copied off the games - so many good ones."
"Lisa Rosenthal, Hi! Great article. I really think everyone needs to find more fitness activities to do. I am a member of the Unity Footbag Club & I appreciate the mention in your article about Footbag. If you know of anyone in your area that would like to learn more about Footbag please contact us through or under the club section. I am in Gilbert. We have members in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Thanks much! "
"Hello, I really enjoyed your article and will incorporate it into our daily activities. Being a father of 7 year old triplets and 4 year old twins, I strive to do numerous outdoor activities in an effort to keep my children in shape and not have them just sitting around watching the TV. You gave me some really good ideas to try out and I will send you an update on how they worked with my children. Being recently separated and soon to be divorced, I have my children the majority of the time and enjoy spending time with them doing arts and crafts and anything outdoors. Thank you for the article and tips! Respectfully yours, Paul L. Carll"