My son, Eli, has been active since the day he was born: lifting his little head, rolling over, crawling, walking, and running, each well ahead of his time. But I will never forget the moment it occurred to me that he could actually exercise: A week after his second birthday, Eli hopped on his new Strider—a pint-sized bicycle with no peddles that helps children learn the art of balancing on two wheels—and took off down our sidewalk, first tentatively walking and steering the handlebars, then sprinting and finally lifting his feet off the ground to coast along at a frighteningly quick pace, while shouting gleefully, "I doing it!" It was a matter of days before I was literally chasing after him—and struggling to keep up.
That's pretty much what Ryan McFarland had in mind when he designed the Strider for his own son. "One of the saddest sights to me is a 2-, 3-, or 4-year-old sitting in a stroller, and mom and dad want to get in a walk or run, and they're exercising and the kid is just sitting there doing nothing—bored, no fitness, kind of dreading the whole going-to-the-park experience," he says, noting that the Strider allows a young child to match or exceed an adult's walking pace, while teaching balance and a sense of control, and providing a pretty good aerobic workout. "The idea is to encourage fun and playfulness that holds their interest and keeps them exercising and learning and active as they grow."
Experts agree that's paramount, as childhood obesity reaches epidemic proportions, physical education and recess continue to decline in schools, and video games replace sports. "We certainly need to reverse [these trends], and establish that physical activity is important from birth on," says Holly Benjamin, MD, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at the University of Chicago. She notes that research has tied childhood obesity—and, indirectly, physical inactivity—to a range of potential health problems, including hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and asthma, as well as depression and low self-esteem. In addition, studies show that an active child may sleep better and have better attention, memory, and concentration skills. "Exercise is medicine," says Benjamin. "It's an important part of being healthy and the prevention of health problems. It should be a lifelong process."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other organizations recommend that all children 2 years and older get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise on most—and preferably all—days of the week. Here's what the National Association for Sport and Physical Education suggests:
- Infants be placed in safe settings that facilitate physical activity and do not restrict movement for prolonged periods of time
- Toddlers get at least 90 minutes of exercise a day, including 30 minutes of planned physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity, or "free play"
- Preschoolers get at least 2 hours of exercise daily, including 60 minutes of planned physical activity and 60 minutes of free play
- School-age children get an hour or more of activity every day, which can be broken up into short periods of 15 minutes or more
The key is finding something that your child loves to do, be it an organized sport, biking to the library to pick out a new book, taking a "nature hike" to collect rocks and bugs, or just tossing a ball or playing tag with a friend. "Families don't need advice on how to train for a triathlon; we are moving so little that we need to feel good about doing anything that's more active," says Rose Kennedy, author of The Family Fitness Fun Book, who recommends that parents start encouraging exercise "without focusing on things [like] 'you're going to look so much better if you do this,' 'you're going to lose weight,' or 'this is going to be so good for you.'" Why? "Kids are very oversensitive about weight already," she explains. "Weight loss will come, but the important thing is to get your heart rate moving and to get kids to identify themselves as people who participate in active things."
So how do you actually get your kids to turn off the TV or computer and get moving? For starters, try getting off the couch and exercising yourself, says pediatrician Charles Cappetta, MD, president of the New Hampshire Pediatric Society. "Modeling behavior is essential.... So just get up and get outside together and do something simple and fun. Don't get caught up in having to go to the latest and greatest activity or using fancy equipment; just promote movement and the idea that we need to move to live, which helps instill habits that last a lifetime."
Certified personal trainer Debi Pillarella, MPD, the National Youth Fitness Spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, agrees. "You can't drop your children off at a fitness class and then take them home to an environment with no physical activity and expect to succeed," she says. You've all got to exercise together." Try some of these tips for integrating fitness into your family's daily life:
- Stick to a schedule. Your child is more likely to exercise if it's part of his or her regular routine, so try to plan at least one activity a day, whether it's kicking a ball around at the park or a formal soccer class.
- Set limits. Set specific time limits for "nonphysical" activities, like 1 hour of television, video games, or computer games daily, and establish that eating isn't allowed during this period.
- Turn off the TV entirely. Set aside a whole day for "TV Turnoff" and commit to playing and moving together as a family instead.
- At least move while you watch the tube. Keep a "movement jar" filled with a variety of physical activity cards like "go for a walk around the block," "complete 10 pushups," or "march in place for 2 minutes," and take turns choosing one during commercial breaks.
- Have at least one family fitness outing a week. For example, go for a bike ride together every weekend.
- Build bits of exercise into your day. Start by parking three blocks away from the bus stop, school, or grocery, in order to get in more walking. If you're going to have ice cream at night, get to the ice cream or convenience store by foot instead of driving.
- Make it a game. Have family contests like pedometer walking, where the winner gets to pick a fun outing like miniature golf, or a trip to the local skate park or beach.
- Give the gift of fitness. Instead of buying your child the latest video game or DVD for her birthday, try giving active presents like a new ball, Frisbee, tennis racket, inline skates, or swimming lessons.
- Get creative. Remember that children are not small adults, and try to plan activities that are fun and engaging on their level. For toddlers and young children, for instance, try having them hop like a bunny or run like a cheetah—activities that tap into their imaginations as well as burn calories.
When in doubt, just play, advises Benjamin: "Make time to go to the playground to run around and climb on the jungle gym. You can see how sweaty kids get pulling their own body weight at the playground, and that's something you can all do together that absolutely counts as exercise for everyone." She notes that when kids reach school age—say 5 or 6—they may be interested in trying organized sports like soccer or T-ball. As they get even older, it's important to keep diversifying activities. "A good exercise program should have aerobic activity and should also involve some form of flexibility exercise [like stretching or yoga] two times a week and strength training two times a week," says Benjamin, who adds that although using light weights in a supervised situation has been proven safe for preteens on up, "strength training" can also mean body-weight exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, squatting, and tumbling.
For families that are already focused on fitness, it's important to watch out for warning signs that kids are doing too much, such as injuries, fatigue, or moodiness. "We want kids to be active but we don't want them to be overly trained," says Benjamin. "Their bodies are growing and they need time to recover."
Back at our house, I'm still loving—and recovering from!—my now daily walk/bike ride routine with Eli, who begs for his Strider every time I go to unfold his stroller and, well, almost anytime at all. The fun continues to evolve: We now play "follow the leader," have races, and play tag as we amble along, while Eli shouts gleefully, "We doing it!" It's a small step towards creating a lifetime appreciation of exercise and the many benefits it has to offer, but I'm glad it's one that we're taking together.
If you're looking for a fun, noncompetitive way to incorporate exercise into a child's life, consider yoga. "Yoga is a structured physical activity that parents and children can do together and that helps them connect," says certified yoga instructor Helen Garabedian, founder and president of Itsy Bitsy Yoga, which offers classes for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers across the country. She touts mind-body benefits for youngsters like better sleep, improved digestion, increased listening skills, improved gross and fine motor development, and increased self-esteem. "It's cool to give children tools to help them find balance and confidence and control in such a chaotic, stressful world," she adds.
Yoga classes tailored specifically for young children are quite different from adult offerings, says Garabedian, who notes that classes are typically divided by age groups (infants, crawlers, walkers, and so on). Other sessions are targeted toward older kids and teens. Try calling local yoga studios in your area to find the best options for your family. Or go online to forecast.diabetes.org/stepone to try sample poses from Helen Garabedian's books, Itsy Bitsy Yoga: Poses to Help Your Baby Sleep Longer, Digest Better and Grow Stronger and Itsy Bitsy Yoga for Toddlers and Preschoolers: 8-Minute Routines to Help Your Child Grow Smarter, Be Happier and Behave Better.
Can a Video Game Get Them Moving?
Having a hard time tearing older kids away from the television or computer screen for some exercise? You may want to consider bringing the workout straight to them, instead. Nintendo's new Wii Fit is an interactive home fitness system that allows you to ski powdery racing slopes, strike a pose in yoga class, or just hula hoop till you drop, all from the comfort of your own living room. There are several dozen exercises in four categories: strength training, aerobics, balance, and yoga. Along the way, the system offers praise, encouragement, and the occasional gentle criticism—it's a virtual personal trainer, of sorts.
At $90 (plus $250 for the basic Wii module), Wii Fit isn't cheap, and it isn't meant to replace regular jogs or trips to the gym. But it can be a really fun way to get your heart rate up a bit and squeeze in some activity, especially when you're pressed for time (or if you're just really into video games).