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Time for Health: How to Schedule (or Unschedule) Your Family Well

A too-busy reality can run you and your loved ones ragged — and do real damage to your family’s happiness in the process. Here’s how to make time for the healthy priorities that really matter.

Time For Health

Jennifer Pelton couldn’t keep up with her frantic schedule, and it was making her — and her family — sick.

The 36-year-old mother of three was working full-time as the primary fundraiser for a nonprofit law organization in Baltimore. She also volunteered at her children’s school, served on the governance board of her professional association, consulted for other nonprofits and organized the social justice discussion series at her church.

In addition, Pelton regularly brought her work home with her. She snuck the time she needed to meet all her obligations by sacrificing sleep, quality family connections and, eventually, her health.

“I was staying up for hours after the kids went to bed, getting four hours of sleep a night,” Pelton recalls. “I was living in a fog of fatigue. I was exhausted all the time and was getting sick frequently. I had recurring infections, frequent stomachaches and migraine headaches.”

Pelton’s overdrive habits put her family’s well-being at risk, too. “After work, I was cranky and had no energy to do things with my kids, so we just watched TV,” she says. Healthy, homemade meals, active family pursuits and thoughtful conversations all fell by the wayside.

Then, last summer, Pelton’s doctor told her she needed to slow down. “He saw that I was on the verge of exhaustion, and he told me things could get much worse if I kept burning the candle at both ends,” she says.

So Pelton pooled her unused sick days and vacation days, stepped aside from her volunteer commitments, and took a four-week mini-sabbatical to rest, reflect and reconfigure how she spent her time.

She started feeling better almost immediately. Plus, she had more time to foster healthy family habits. “I became more conscious about how we ate. We started eating meals together at the table and having conversations. The kids started participating more in cooking meals, too, and learning about what to eat, how to select it and how to make it,” she says.

“I’ve also had more time to help them make better choices, whether about physical health, such as going for walks instead of collapsing in front of the TV, or mental health — taking the time to talk through situations with them.”

Pelton learned from experience what many of us know in our bones: Time is a key factor in creating a healthy, happy family. And while taking a lengthy vacation like Pelton’s isn’t a bad way to reboot a broken system, the key to maintaining healthier patterns is integrating small, daily priority shifts that can be sustained over time. Here are some perspectives and ideas to get you and your family started down a healthier path.

The Time-Health Connection

The simple act of rushing is stressful in itself. But our rush-rush routines often cascade into a whole variety of unhealthy habits and compromises. Convenience eating, skimpy sleep, minimal time for exercise or stress relief, and dwindling availability for emotional connections — all these things undermine our health and well-being. And they pose particular risks for children.

In the 2007 UNICEF study Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, the United States ranked second to last. Here is just one reason why: 25 percent of American children between the ages of 13 and 15 are overweight — the highest percentage in the world and triple the figure in the Netherlands, the top-ranked country in the study.

The quality of children’s diets in the United States ranked next to last — and part of this dynamic is because of overscheduling: The study showed that only 47 percent of American children regularly eat breakfast; only 65 percent regularly share family dinners compared with an 80 percent average in Europe and more than 90 percent, specifically, in Italy, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Belgium.

Time pressures threaten adults’ health, as well — something parents who want to be around for their kids’ college graduations would do well to keep in mind. A 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health and the British Health Service found that after age 55, Americans were nearly twice as likely as their U.K. counterparts to suffer from such chronic ailments as heart disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.

What gives? The British smoke and drink more and eat just as much sugar and fat as we do — but they work fewer hours, are more physically active and experience less overall stress. They also socialize more with friends and family, an activity that turns out to be one of the most important single factors in health outcomes, and that requires — you guessed it — free time.

Time Traps

Perhaps the most diabolical time gobbler is work. Longer work hours have become the norm for most people in the United States today, and Americans consistently work more hours each year than workers in virtually every other industrialized country. (For more on how Americans stack up against the rest of the world in free time, see “No-Vacation Nation”.)

Somehow, even despite their longer workdays, moms and dads are still determinedly spending time with their children. The whole issue of what constitutes “quality time” is a matter of debate, but one thing is certain: If the total amount of time parents are spending with their children is holding steady, the overall picture of how they interact has almost certainly changed.

In the past, family time was spent sharing meals, doing household chores together or just “hanging out,” says University of Minnesota social scientist William Doherty, PhD, coauthor of Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World (Holt, 2002). Today, that informal family time has all but disappeared — replaced by a form of parenting that some experts see as more akin to product development.

In the race to help children “achieve” and “succeed,” many parents are scheduling their children’s days tightly and well in advance. Gone are the days of hanging out together in the kitchen or puttering around in the yard. A significant portion of family “together time” is now spent with parents chauffeuring kids to activities or watching them compete.

And where do these busy parents find the time? Like  Pelton, many parents skimp on time for self-care and sleep. Studies by the National Sleep Foundation indicate that pressed-for-time adults are now sleeping an hour less each night than they did a generation ago, with all kinds of negative implications for their health — and mood.

Whatever kids stand to gain from all their extracurricular activities, there are net losses for them, too. An overly packed activities schedule can leave kids as rushed and stressed as their parents, siphoning off the time both parties have available for just talking and sorting through the day’s joys and challenges.

Kids may also lose out on opportunities for free, unstructured play, a vital activity that begets creativity and ingenuity and sharpens problem-solving skills. In fact, Doherty argues that overemphasizing competitive sports often means kids get less, not more, exercise.

“Instead of playing for hours in the park, they get driven to games and actually spend less time playing,” he says. (For more on kids and exercise, see “The Young and Not-So-Restless: Assessing Your Kid’s Activity Level.”)

Just as important as the time and energy families are putting out is the energy and nourishment they are taking in: Overscheduling typically leads to fewer meals eaten together as a family — and more unhealthy convenience foods eaten on the run.

Today, “we eat more in our cars or in fast-food restaurants,” says Doherty. “We’ve seen a one-third drop in the number of families that eat dinner together. This is a problem, because nutritionists have found that meals prepared at home mean better nourishment and fewer unhealthy fats and sugars, which means less obesity.”

Finally, when we do find ourselves with a little downtime, we’re often so tired from racing around that we gravitate toward passive, rather than active, entertainments. The average American teenager now spends about half of his or her waking hours hooked to some kind of electronic media. Parents, too, overwhelmed by workaday fatigue, often watch TV several hours each day. The opportunities for real, shared, intimate connections in such screen-oriented settings are few.

How to Transform Time

The forces that keep us separated and distracted are many and powerful, but it is possible to fight time poverty and win. Here are some ways to reclaim the valuable time it takes to keep a family healthy and strong:

Assess
Start by making a list of the commitments that are monopolizing your time. Ask yourself questions about each commitment: Are you spending more time at work than you have in the past, or are you taking work home? How many commitments do you have outside of home and work? How satisfying is each commitment (volunteer projects, book clubs, etc.)? How many extracurricular activities are your kids involved in? How much focus are you able to give your spouse and children, and how consistent are you in taking good care of yourself, being a good role model for the young adults your children will soon become?

Experiment
Temporarily drop one or two commitments from your list, and encourage your family members to do the same. This may prove easier and less painful than you think and will give you an interesting experience to share as a family.

A group of high school seniors at Amherst County High School near Lynchburg, Va., spent a week giving up a possession or activity they thought they couldn’t live without — everything from television and Web surfing to shopping for clothes and driving. Almost all the students found real value in the exercise.

“This project made the past week more fun than it would have been if I’d watched TV or wasted my time on the Internet,” said student Lauren Gryctko. “I’m actually sad the project is over.”

Others reported improvements in their sleep and eating habits, increased (and enjoyable!) time spent with parents, less stress, and greater overall feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Most said they planned to continue the changes they’d made.

UNschedule
As you experiment with paring down commitments, actively plan nothing in their place. Unstructured family time can lead to healthy, unexpected surprises — a family walk, cooking together, an afternoon in the yard looking for four-leaf clovers. Or, if you do want to schedule an activity, plan an outing or start a new family ritual.

Guarding your new free time requires you to practice saying no. Begin by declining small requests and soon you’ll be ready to tackle bigger ones. Remember: Saying no to a request now doesn’t mean you can’t say yes later, when or if you realign or eliminate other commitments. (See “Getting to No”.)

Spend Less
The work-spend cycle isn’t just tough on the pocketbook, it’s a key contributor to time poverty. Cultural messages encourage us to spend our money as fast as we make it, if not faster. We’re bombarded with images of the latest techno gadget or new car or sleek home appliance (often advertised as life necessities or time savers). So we buy these things and then work more to pay for them — in effect, letting our new toys gobble up our free time.

Stepping out of the work-spend cycle is one of the most fundamental shifts you can make to take back your time. The more financial freedom you feel, the less likely you are to overwork. And the more time you have to devote to your family’s health.

A New Model

After her mini-sabbatical, Jennifer Pelton returned to work vowing to retain the balance she discovered during her time off. She’s not immune to the pressures of modern life, certainly, so when she feels herself teetering off course, she recruits the help of two friends she designated as “balance buddies.” Instead of pushing each other to do more, she says, they check in regularly and “push each other to slow down.”

Pelton also carves out time to meditate, which, she says, helps her stay more conscious and balanced. This healthy ritual also sets a good example for her entire household.

“The behavior I model [for my kids] is far better absorbed than what I say,” she explains. “If I’m caring for myself, and integrating meditation, simple exercise and healthy food into my life, then they are more likely to see it and act on it as natural.”

With small steps and some external support, we can all get closer to more balanced, “time-rich” lives. And that shift is one of the best gifts we can give to the people we love the most. Not only are we more present in our families’ lives, actively promoting healthy choices, but we’re also modeling healthy behavior that children will adopt for a lifetime.

leads Take Back Your Time, a North American initiative that challenges the epidemic of overwork, overscheduling and time famine that threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities, and our environment. Learn more about Take Back Your Time at www.timeday.org.

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