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:

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.

Old-fashioned family fitness

Remember the good old days when kids used to run outside to play hopscotch, baseball or jump rope? Keeping fit was just a natural part of having fun. With the help of staff and youth organizations across the country, Rose Kennedy has gathered a variety of old and new games and activities into a book brimming with fitness activities, The Family Fitness Fun Book: Healthy Living for the Whole Family (Healthy Living Books, 2005).

The key to fun family fitness, she says, is to "Keep it simple and fun. If it is not something you can easily do all the time, you won't do it." She recommends not discussing weight issues or health benefits. You are more likely to encounter resistance if you say, "This will be good for you." Chances are if the activities are fun, everyone in the family will look forward to doing them, and the health benefits will be a natural result.

Family fitness night. Kennedy suggests having a regular time during the week for family fitness activities but cautions families to make it an "add-on" activity rather than a substitute for watching TV. 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.

Kennedy likes games that are a little goofy, that involve some mental strategy, and that can involve everyone in the family, no matter what age. "When you can use your brain, too, you don't have to be the biggest, strongest or fastest to win," she notes. Here are some of her favorites:

TV tag. A variation on tag. Everyone runs around trying to tag each other. To avoid being tagged, you can squat down anywhere and yell out the name of your favorite TV show. A variation would be to yell out the name of your favorite book or book character.

Sardines. A variation on hide and seek. This game can be played inside or out. One person hides. Everyone else tries to find him. When you find the person who is hiding, you hide with him. The last one left looking gets to be the one to hide in the next round of the game.

Capture the flag. This is a great classic game for family or neighborhood gatherings. Mix different age groups on each team, if possible. Have at least three people on each team. Divide a large area into two equal halves (best at a park or large backyard). The players on each team work together to hide their flag (could be a rag, shirt or any object) in their team's territory. Designate a "prison" area on each side of the field. Players try to find the other team's flag and bring it back to their side of the field without being tagged. If they get tagged, they must wait in the prison area for a member of their team to come "free" them. The game ends when one team captures the opposing team's flag."Dads sometimes start off playing this game reluctantly," says Kennedy, "but they never finish reluctantly."

Fitness games to play while you are waiting

Play ball. Kennedy says she likes to keep a pink bouncy ball in her car because she can always pull it out to play catch at a rest stop on the highway or at the school playground while waiting to pick up one of her children.

Hit the stick. Another quick game to play with a ball is Hit the Stick. Put a stick in the middle of two sidewalk squares. Take turns trying to hit the stick with the ball. If you turn the stick over, you get two points.

Stone teacher. This is a good game to play on a staircase at an office building or at a school. One person is the Stone Teacher. She holds a stone in one hand and faces the group lined up on the steps below her. One person walks up to her and tries to guess which hand has the stone. If she guesses correctly, she moves up a step. When she reaches the step where the Stone Teacher is, she gets to take her place.

Walk the plank. Draw a line on the ground or floor, or put a piece of rope down. Take turns trying to walk on the line. Try walking backwards, with eyes closed or looking into binoculars that are upside down. This game is good for improving your balance.

Other old-fashioned fitness

Have a hula hoop contest. Who can keep their hula hoop swirling the longest?

Jump rope. Did you know that jumping rope started out as an activity for boys in the United States? When people started migrating from the farms to the cities, the activity became popular with girls as well. Boys tended to do fancy tricks (trick jumps, crossovers, double jumping, and peppers) while girls made up rhymes and songs. So let there be no excuses from boys who think jumping rope is just for girls.

Start out slowly, jumping 30 hops, just clearing the rope, and add a few more hops as you get comfortable.

Your rope should be long enough to reach from the floor to your armpits when the rope is folded in half. In addition, ball bearings in the handles are preferable.

See who can jump the longest or bring out the old jump rope songs and rhymes. Remember this one?

A my name is Alice
And my husband's name is Arthur,
We come from Alabama,
Where we sell artichokes.
B my name is Barney
And my wife's name is Bridget,
We come from Brooklyn,
Where we sell bicycles.
C my name is _________
And my husband's name is ___________
We come from __________
Where we sell ___________.

Or find more rhymes here.

Play hopscotch, handball or stickball. All these games require nothing more than simple materials: chalk, a stick, a ball. For rules, variations and events, check streetplay.com.

Keep a family fitness journal

Kennedy suggests that one of the children in the family be appointed to keep a log or chart of your family fitness activities. It can include what games you played each week, what your heart rate was before and after, whether you improved your time or number of spins with the hula hoop, for example. The log becomes one more way to get your family to commit to fitness activities.