Make Fitness a Family Affair
You may think of exercise as something you do for yourself at the gym. But, when you, your partner, and your kids enjoy being active together, you all gain the health benefits of physical activity while squeezing in some fun family time.
If you want exercise to be more than another item on your to-do list, you have to prioritize and plan for it.
“Exercise should be important — up there with your job, cooking, and cleaning,” says Kristopher J. Paultre, M.D., a primary care sports medicine expert with the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute.
The benefits of physical activity are life-changing.
Sure, getting enough exercise will help you maintain a healthy weight. But, you may not realize the other wide-reaching benefits of living a more active lifestyle.
Studies show that regular physical activity can reduce your risk of dying early from heart disease/heart attack and stroke. A combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength/resistance training helps prevent a variety of cancers, including bladder, lung, kidney, colon, and breast. Plus, evidence shows that regular physical activity — especially outdoors and with others — helps reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.
What can exercise do for you and your family?
- Lift your mood.
- Decrease physical pain (caused by stress on the joints, back and nerves).
- Control blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Reduce the risk of many chronic diseases.
- Increase your energy levels throughout the day.
- Help you maintain and build muscle mass.
- Strengthen bones to prevent fractures and osteoporosis.
- Improve your balance.
- Increase your flexibility.
- Reduce your fall risk as you age.
- Get better quality, more restorative sleep.
- Sharpen brain function (by enhancing thinking, learning and judgment skills).
- Improve sexual health (may lower the risk of erectile dysfunction in men and increase sexual arousal in post-menopausal women).
- Give you more quality shared time with your loved ones and activities to bond over.
How much exercise makes a difference?
Researchers have found that 30 to 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous daily physical activity reduces the adverse health effects of 10 hours of sitting. The goal is to raise your heart rate through physical activity for at least one hour each day. Strive to include more vigorous-intensity activities (and strengthening exercises) at least three days each week.
“When putting together an exercise regimen for your whole family to enjoy, be mindful that physical activity guidelines are based on age range and health status,” Dr. Paultre says. “These age ranges are young children (ages 3 to 5 years), children and adolescents (ages 6 through 17), adults (18 to 65), and older adults (65+).”
Start with the things you love to do together.
Does your family thrive on competition? Play games in your yard or at a local park that require running around, like tennis, basketball, soccer, and tag. Grab your bikes and zip around your neighborhood, or pedal to your destination instead of hopping in the car.
Music fans? Dance around the living room or let the kids make a dance routine and teach you how to do it.
Love the beach? Swim or jog along the shore after dinner.
Want to include the family dog? Go for a brisk walk or run.
If you’re already enjoying daily or nightly walks, try this challenge.
Push yourself to walk longer distances more often, which can help you quicken your pace. This can feel like a game and will keep you and the kids more engaged. When strolling or briskly walking, you can see corners of your community you don’t notice when you’re in the car. Walk around downtown, near street art, around a tree-lined neighborhood, or through a park you’ve been meaning to check out. Encourage the family to take photos of the nature and architecture around you.
If you typically hit the couch for family time, consider putting a treadmill in front of the TV and taking turns walking or jogging for 20 minutes at a time.
With the right approach, even keeping the house and yard looking nice can be a workout. Ask your family to complete weekend chores together. The kids may complain at first, but eventually, they might appreciate the distraction-free time spent together. Once the chores are out of the way, you can treat yourselves to an active day at a playground, beach or park.
For your little explorers (three to five years old), incorporate play to get them excited.
Turn any task into a game or competition that requires moving their bodies – hide and seek, learn to swim, play tag, living room dance recital, or tree climbing. While you might feel like sitting on the sidelines, joining in the fun will burn a few calories and enable you to model an engaged and active lifestyle for your kids. Children love to see their parents giggling and playing along.
How to include children and teens in exercise.
Beyond school-based recess time and sports, your child can reach their daily activity goals and strengthen their muscles with afterschool activities like gymnastics, dance class, little league baseball, playing on jungle gyms, swimming at the local pool, bike riding or climbing trees.
Adolescents may benefit from weightlifting or HIIT (high-intensity training) workouts, especially if they participate in competitive sports or spend a lot of time doing cardiovascular exercises like running, swimming, or biking. If your child is training at home, join them as much as you can.
Depending on your interests and abilities, you may find it rewarding to teach your child how to safely roller skate, skateboard, ski, indoor rock climb, or snowboard. If your family likes the outdoors, go hiking, pick up trash at the beach, or try mountain trail biking together.
Stay active with your partner.
Think about the time you and your partner get to spend together. Do you often use your downtime to relax on the couch, enjoy a meal, or look at your phones and laptops? Commit to each other that will benefit you both for years to come: “move more, sit less.”
Even low-intensity activity will benefit your health. The goal is still to get an hour each day of moderate-intensity exercise plus more vigorous activity three days each week. This can be as simple as agreeing to add yoga, biking, and a one-mile run to your shared routine. To stay motivated, try a reward system that gets your juices flowing. For example, whoever runs the fastest mile in a given month gets to pick their favorite restaurant or movie for date night. Imagine how much better you’ll feel about your choices — and your relationship — after you spend 30 minutes to an hour together every day, supporting each other, chatting about your day, and prioritizing your health as a couple.
Here are more ideas to sneak exercise into your busy day.
Expectant mothers need to exercise as much as rest.
During pregnancy, your body needs extra rest, but it’s also important to exercise regularly. This will help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your blood pressure, reduce your stress, sleep better, strengthen your body for childbirth and support the overall health of you and your growing baby.
“Just be mindful of the intensity of exercise,” says Dr. Paultre, “as there are some limitations in terms of types of activities you should avoid while pregnant. Speak with your doctor about safe and appropriate activity throughout pregnancy and after childbirth.”
Expectant mothers can safely exercise for 30 minutes per day, for three to five days per week. If you haven’t exercised in a while, seek the guidance of a trainer with experience with pregnant clients. Any safe physical activity is better than being sedentary throughout pregnancy. If you are an athlete or typically train regularly, you will need to modify some movements and reduce the intensity of your usual routine.
Don’t retire from physical fitness.
Staying fit as a senior can reduce aches and pains, make daily life tasks easier, and lower your risk for falls and injuries — giving you more energy and independence. Don’t assume it’s too late or too challenging for you to become more active and improve your health in your retirement years.
For men and women age 65 and older, doctors recommend a combination of aerobic activity, strength training, balancing exercises, and flexibility exercises.
Still trying to figure out where to start? Walking for just 5 to 10 minutes a few days a week is a great way to begin any fitness journey. Once you can comfortably walk for 30 consecutive minutes, you can advance to more challenging aerobic activities (like jogging, dancing, water aerobics, biking, or tai chi).
Strength-training exercises can make activities like carrying groceries and lifting grandchildren easier. Examples include light weight lifting, Pilates, resistance band exercises, lunges, squats and modified pushups.
Balance exercises help prevent falls by improving how you walk on uneven pavement, sit down on a moving bus or airplane or stand up after sitting for more extended periods. Some fun ways to improve your balance include yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and physical therapy movements.
Flexibility exercises help release muscle tension, keep you limber and widen your range of motion. Stretching regularly can come in handy when you need to bend over to tie your shoes, reach for an object on a high shelf or twist to look back over your shoulder. Stay limber with stretching, yoga, and physical therapy movements.
Don’t forget to discuss any new exercise routine or strenuous activity with your family physician first. They can advise you about any risks related to your medical conditions, medications and injury history.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UHealth’s news service.