Monday, January 27, 2014

Family Fitness

When I was a kid, my father played squash almost every workday and tennis every weekend. He was fortunate. Working in the Pentagon, he was immersed in a culture that rewarded physical fitness, and he had access to a world-class fitness facility. This was the early 1970s. The "workout" craze of the ‘80s – Aerobics, Bally's Health Clubs, the running boom – was a decade away. But in my house, active adults were the norm. Not so for my friends. Few of the other adults in my neighborhood did much of anything.

On the other hand, kids were always active. We lived in a neighborhood with several large families on each block. Every third house had a basketball hoop and pickup football games were a daily occurrence. Packs of kids roamed the neighborhood on bicycles and there was ample wooded space to explore.

Today's world is very different. If I see someone running or bicycling around my block, it is much more likely to be an adult than a child. Many of the kids in town are active, but typically on sports teams in scheduled practices or games. Packs of kids don't roam. The woods behind my house are deserted. I rarely see kids in "pickup" activities, mine included.

Neither of my kids is inclined to play team sports. This is not too surprising, my wife and I gravitate towards solitary activities like running, cycling and swimming. Like it or not, kids learn from their parents. When parents do nothing, kids are more likely to do nothing as well.

Life-habits are learned as children, and I want my kids, all kids, to learn the habit of physical fitness. There are some bright spots. In my daughter's middle-school gym class, they start every session with a one-mile run. But gym class is only every fourth day. And kids are NEVER assigned gym class homework. I'm not sure why this is, but an assignment to lead their family in a few fitness activities each week would be a great way to keep kids moving through the week.

This isn't just about kids. County statistics show that kids are half as likely to be overweight as the adults around them. All kids and adults need to settle into a regular fitness habit. It doesn't have to be boring and it doesn't have to be the same every time. A fitness routine is an excellent opportunity to do something as a family – you know, "quality time with the kids".

For example, all through the summer, my wife and I, along with our two grade school kids, go for a walk around the neighborhood just about every evening. During the warm weather months, we try to spend at least one weekend morning riding bikes through the local park. Throughout the year we take time to go swimming at the Y's indoor pool. And regardless of the weather, we seek out interesting places to go hiking. When the snow starts falling, my kids start talking about hiking. It is impossible to determine what will develop into fond childhood memories, but I have a hard time believing that my kids' memories will not include hiking through snowy woods with their parents.

Wintertime can be tricky. With shorter days and polar vortexes, it can be hard to find a warm or lighted place to exercise. Fortunately, my family has a Y membership that provides us access to indoor space. This winter, our weekend focus has been "family bootcamp". We set up a series of exercises – each of us pick a couple -- and we each do the ones we want. Some are more adult, some are more kid oriented, but all get us breathing, sweating and building muscle mass. I can't remember the last time I did a 'crab-walk' but I now find it to be as good a triceps exercise as dips. When was the last time you did a wheelbarrow – remember that? Someone holds your legs and you walk on your hands. Pushups, shuttle-runs, broad-jumps, sprints. Often my kids are better at these activities than I am.

Initially, I thought this was going to be one of those activities that the adults want to do and the kids think of as a chore. But every weekend, I hear the same thing: "When are we going to do bootcamp?" They have truly embraced this as a fun activity to do with their parents. And all of us come home spent. The best work out of the week.

Because every family is different, each will come up with different fitness activities. Touch football, Frisbee, whiffle ball, hula-hooping, skating. Really the list is endless. It just comes down to commitment and sometimes a bit of compromise. Try out some of your kids' games. They may wind up being more fun and more challenging than you think. The important thing is to get moving, and to get moving as a group.

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