The Parent-Kid Connection

Problem: Neither you nor your kid is getting enough exercise. Solution: Get active together.

You care about fitness. And you want your kids to value health and vitality as much as you do. Problem is, you can’t find enough hours in the day to accommodate work, chores, errands, shuttling kids to and fro, and spending quality time with your family. You want to squeeze in the kind of workout that shows your kids that you practice what you preach. But how can you do it all?

You might take a cue from Stacey Freeman and Jean Moloney of Overland Park, Kan. Rather than juggling too many individual tasks, the couple has found a way to integrate activities, teaching their 4-year-old son, Oscar, the value of exercise while getting their own heart rates up, too.

Freeman, a massage therapist, and Moloney, a compliance manager with a global financial-services firm, bring Oscar along on hikes and bike rides. Family time is active time: Playing at the park, hitting baseballs in the backyard – even basic chores like lawn work become exercise activities that engage the entire family.

“Whatever we’re doing, Oscar just wants to be involved,” says Freeman. “If I’m raking leaves, he rakes too. He wants to help make beds and sort clothes. He sleeps great at night because he’s so wiped out by the end of the day.”

Oscar’s parents are obviously onto something. The right activities, ranging from simply domestic to fully aerobic, can provide a workout for both you and your kids, not to mention additional minutes or hours interacting with your youngsters. Taking a short, after-dinner bike ride with your daughter, for example, may provide the only one-on-one time you’ll have with her all day – a few valuable minutes for discussing a problem at school or reveling in the sight of a bald eagle overhead. It can get your blood pumping, hasten your digestion, reduce your stress levels and fill your lungs with fresh air. Plus, it’s equally good for your kid’s health.

“Regular exercise helps children grow, build strong muscles and bones, and develop important motor skills. And everyday activities – shopping, cleaning house, gardening or yard work – are great sources of exercise,” says pediatrician Mary Gavin, MD, medical editor of www.kidshealth.org and a coauthor of Fit Kids: A Practical Guide to Raising Healthy and Active Children – From Birth to Teens (DK Publishing, 2004). “Families who work, play and exercise together establish healthy habits for life.”

Not all workout activities are suitable for family interactions, of course. Toddlers can’t train with triathletes, and swimming laps in side-by-side lanes won’t necessarily lead to spontaneous conversations with your high schooler. But there are plenty of physically invigorating activities that adults and kids of almost any age can enjoy together.

Preschoolers: Ages 3 to 5

These active youngsters can play as long and hard as their attention spans permit, and most can follow multiple-step directions. Let them run wild at the park, advises Gavin. Play catch, tag or hide-and-seek, and work on hand-eye coordination and mastering semicomplex movements and skills, such as hitting a ball off a tee or hopping forward, backward and sideways. While not quite ready for competitive organized team sports, preschoolers will benefit from the social interactions of structured playgroups.

To get the pulse going, put on some tunes and dance around the house. Help your preschooler balance a bean bag on his or her head while walking – then create an obstacle course with chairs, boxes and toys to make it more challenging. Set up a goal for your child to kick a ball through. Or hide “treasures” throughout your house for a treasure hunt.

When Cecilia Aruskevicius does her morning yoga, her children, Hallie, 6; Jack, 3; and Sam, 2; join her. “They love downward dog,” says Aruskevicius. The Meridian, Idaho, resident homeschools her kids, so daily activity is a must for “PE class.” Most days it’s free play in the backyard, but skiing is an occasional option, too (the nearest mountain slopes are just an hour’s drive away). Every member of the family loves to bike, and most afternoons, Hallie and Jack hop on their cycles and ride alongside Aruskevicius as she pushes Sam in a stroller, logging roughly a mile through the neighborhood or to a nearby park and back.

School-Age Kids: Ages 6 to 8

At this age, kids are becoming more independent and developing their own identities. Some crave team sports, while others prefer individual activities such as biking, swimming or martial arts. They also want to hang out with friends more, so parents may need to schedule specific times for family activities, says Gavin.

Enroll yourself and your kids in concurrent recreation classes at your local rec center or health club. Your daughter may excel in karate, your son in gymnastics and you in Pilates. Pickup games of basketball, baseball, flag football and soccer are reliable fallback activities, but use your imagination, too, to get your family moving: Buy hula-hoops for all and see who can keep circling the longest. Or purchase pedometers so your family members can each log their steps and miles daily. Make it fun – have your kids calculate the steps to the mailbox, park, school and other destinations. They’ll hone math skills, learn geography and get exercise.

Mary Anne Reed, of Folsom, Calif., encourages her kids to use their imagination as a source for inspiration regarding physical activities. After she finishes reading a story to Andrew, 7, and Katherine, 4, the kids act out scenes from the book. Mary Anne plays along too. Some days they’re pirates searching for backyard bounty, other days they’re sled dogs braving the Alaskan tundra. “Kids today are too busy with so many organized activities that they don’t have time to be creative and pretend that they’re sled dogs,” she says. “That’s what being a kid is all about.”

Tweens: Ages 9 to 13

Many kids show an interest in team sports at this age. And the attitudes of their peers and families can influence their participation. Kids whose athletic skills are lagging may become frustrated and, without encouragement, swear off all forms of fitness, Gavin cautions. “There’s a window of opportunity that many parents miss at this stage,” she says. “You want to get them active and make it a routine.”

To avoid frustration, find out what your tween likes to do and do it with her. Strap on those inline skates or that rock-climbing gear. Practice your tennis or racquetball swings together. And you’re never too old – or uncool – to learn how to skateboard, wakeboard or snowboard. Consider joining a health club together and asking a professional trainer to tailor a workout regimen for the two of you. Or sign up for an event together.

After watching his dad compete in mountain-bike races, Jack Pedersen decided he wanted to join the fun. Now the 9-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., competes in the youth age group while his father, Russ, rides with the adults. In fact, all six members of the family enjoy recreational biking. “We live near a bike trail, so we’ll ride to the grocery store or just for fun,” Russ says. “It’s hard to keep us off our bikes!”

Teens: Ages 14 to 18

Most teens want to set their own course. When it comes to physical activity, give them leeway to make choices within a structured set of options, counsels Gavin. But be prepared to set boundaries, too. Explain, for example, that weekly skiing trips are costly. Offer to let them help plan a seasonal trip and bring a friend, if they like.

The teen years are a great time for developing new skills. John Determan opened the Glenwood Boxing Club in 1997 to teach youth, ages 10 and older, about the sport’s self-discipline and fitness benefits: developing coordination, timing, cardio conditioning and mental toughness. The club, in Glenwood, Iowa, now also attracts adults who want to train with their kids. (Determan is strict about safety: Appropriate head and chest protections are required for both kids and adults.) His son and daughter – Johnny, 14, and Jesi, 16 – not only share their dad’s love of boxing, they even help him train other athletes.

Active jobs, such as working at a gym, camp or pool, are good for older teens too. But they may find it difficult to juggle fitness, school and a part-time job. “Be a role model,” Gavin advises parents. “Show them you work and still make time for exercise. Remind them to set a schedule and prioritize important activities.”

If your teen is more sedentary, ask him or her to join you for a walk around the block before dinner or take one last lap around the mall when you finish shopping. Spend an afternoon canoeing on a local lake, or sign up to participate in a local AIDS or breast-cancer walk. For something novel, get into geocaching, an adventure sport that uses global positioning system (GPS) technology to find hidden treasures (www.geocaching.com).

“I think it’s important that my daughter sees me Rollerblading – even though I’m not very good,” Gavin says of her own attempts to keep her family fit. “It shows I’m making an effort. And being willing to try something new is how we grow – as kids and as adults.”

Dawn J. Grubb is a freelance writer in Westwood, Kan.

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