By Dawn Van Osdell
We’ve all had the importance of physical activity drilled into us from an early age. But busy days and tight schedules—coupled with all that wintery weather—haven’t made it easy to get ourselves and our kids off the couch and out of doors for some fresh air and exercise. With the approach of spring and warmer temperatures, there can be no more excuses! It’s time to make exercise a regular part of your family’s routine—hopefully forever.
According to the National Recreation and Park Association, kids today spend as little as seven minutes per day engaged in outdoor play, and more than seven hours in front of an electronic device. Such a sedentary lifestyle is not just the fault of video games and television; it can also be attributed to increases in homework and extracurricular activities, as well as shorter school recess times. Sadly, kids’ activity levels tend to drop even lower as they get older. The average child gets slightly more than half of the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day; by adolescence, he or she clocks about eight measly minutes. How can we combat this trend?
“We don’t need to make activity extreme,” says Angela Lemond, a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We just have to counteract all the sitting we do and show our kids that active living is fun and rewarding.” If we get kids moving when they are young, exercise is likely to become second nature to them, evolving into a lifestyle that may be the greatest gift we can give them.
It’s probably easier than you think. But jumpstarting a healthier lifestyle begins with a concerted effort from parents. “Everything we want for our kids has to start with ourselves,” says Lemond, who often coaches families in her nutrition and healthy lifestyle practice. She’s repeatedly seen that parental modeling is one, if not the most, important motivator for getting kids moving. “If parents aren’t active, or if they see exercise as drudgery, their kids will see it that way, too,” she says.
If your family could use a fresh start or needs to up its activity ante, start by building a healthy lifestyle contract, with every family member contributing ideas and committing to positive change and healthier habits. “Talk about the importance of an active lifestyle and help kids feel empowered by sharing their interests and setting goals for being more active,” Lemond says. Making drastic changes in the way your family lives rarely works. So rather than pledging daily morning runs before work and school, commit to small improvements that are more likely to stick over time, such as taking a family walk once a week, or choosing a more active vacation destination for summer break.
“Kids live in a world of creativity and wonder, so think like they do and present active living as fun, quality time to be together as a family, not as mandatory workouts being imposed on them,” advises Lemond. She says her kids have come to see hiking, camping, and exploring nature together as enjoyable activities, rather than as exercise.
Also remember that being active isn’t just about sports. And for that matter, says Jessica Culverhouse, a representative for the NRPA and an environmental educator, being active outdoors doesn’t have to mean a “week-long camping trip without indoor plumbing,” she says. Start with what she calls small nature “snacks,” like a visit to your local nature center or a walk on a well-maintained trail. Culverhouse encourages parents to keep the focus on the experience—what you see and smell, how you feel, the weather—rather than on the exercise. “Make sure you give your kids some space to explore on their own, investigate, and play,” she says. “Let your young toddler walk a few feet ahead of you on the trail and perhaps turn over a rock. Your kindergartener can help choose the route, and your tween may be ready to explore on her own for a short time.”
This is how you spark curiosity and build your child’s interest in the outdoors—without necessitating a special visit to a national park or the mountains. “From a young child’s perspective, a small patch of green space, a short, even a paved nature trail, or a small garden are like a vast wilderness,” says Culverhouse. Simply playing in a natural, outdoor setting, exploring in the woods, climbing a tree, discovering a tiny ecosystem by turning over a log, or constructing a fort from fallen branches, is beneficial, active time for kids.
If you actually are a sporty family, find a sport you can all enjoy, even as spectators. “We are a big soccer family,” Lemond says. Her family plays soccer, watches games on TV, attends games together, and follows World Cup stars. “It’s hugely motivating for kids to see players they admire and want to be like,” she says. The same goes for her daughter’s love of cheerleading—she enjoys watching older girls compete and is motivated and challenged to reach the goals she sees them achieving.
So what about the child who would rather dive into a book or draw than ride a bike or hike? Lemond says some kids are genetically predisposed to an inactive lifestyle—maybe even taking after Mom or Dad. There’s no need to force a kid to be something he isn’t, she says. Instead, customize activities to this child’s particular interests and work towards making them fun, encouraging him to explore. She suggests non-competitive activities like a 5K walk or swimming, or pursuits that stimulate the mind or engage kids socially, such as scouting; geocaching, a real-world scavenger hunt game where families use GPS-enabled devices to find hidden treasures; nature exploration; or trips to a zoo or a nature preserve.
“A simple nature scavenger hunt using a smartphone camera is a fun and easy way to get kids outdoors and active,” says Culverhouse. She even suggests screen time to make it happen! She says free apps like Leafsnap and mobile games like Agents of Nature are great tools to engage kids in the outdoors. “Ideally," she says, "the phones and tablets will eventually be left inside as kids venture out to play and explore.”
Still feel like you need motivation or encouragement to get active? Consider some of the key benefits of movement, published by the American Council on Exercise: Physical exercise helps build and maintain strong, healthy bodies and minds; improves sleep; enhances academic performance; builds self-esteem; boosts mood, and kids who are active are more likely to be active adults. On the flip side, lack of exercise puts your child at risk for some pretty scary stuff: cardiovascular disease (plaque begins accumulating in the walls of the arteries even during early childhood), high blood pressure, diabetes and hence, a lower life expectancy. Just think—a mere 60 minutes of moderate exercise a day, the daily minimum recommended by the American Heart Association, could actually save your child’s life.
Photographs by UrbanSitter