Make physical activity part of your family’s day – year round.
As the cold weather approaches, finding outdoor physical activity can be a challenge for families. It’s easy to look outside and tell yourself this is a time of hibernation, not outdoor activity. Watching television and playing video games become common pastimes, while balls and tennis shoes gather dust. It’s important for parents to be role models for their children for exercise and physical activity. Don’t worry about the weather — participate in some unique outdoor experiences.
You can and should make year-round physical activity part of your children’s day right from the start, though it’s never too late to begin. Whether you like a brisk family walk around the neighborhood or dancing with your teenager to the oldies, regular physical activity can give the whole family a health boost. Among its many benefits, exercise can strengthen a child’s bones, improve muscle tone, increase coordination and burn excess calories. One of the best investments you can make in your children’s future doesn’t have to cost a penny — plus it’s fun!
Break the Sedentary Cycle
American children watch an average of 25 to 27 hours of television per week, and spend only about 14 minutes per day in physical activity — and even less, as they get older. Funding cuts have forced many schools to reduce or eliminate their physical activity programs, so it’s up to you to get your kids moving. They won’t need much encouragement as long as you keep the activity fun, non-competitive and age-appropriate.
Get your children in the habit of walking up the steps instead of using escalators, walking instead of riding on the school bus, if feasible, or getting off the bus a few stops early and walking to their destination. Consider organizing a Walk to School Program within your school district. It’s an excellent way for your child to make new friends — and for you to meet your neighbors. Also, support your school’s physical education program and dress your child to be able to participate comfortably.
Increasing activity can be as simple as getting into the habit of taking a family walk before or after dinner. Include infants and toddlers, too. You can go on a scavenger hunt and/or play I Spy while walking. Or, start a story before you leave the house and add to it along the way. Include grandparents on walks, and have them share stories and memories as you go.
When your child has to play solo, suggest he throw or toss a beach ball and chase it. Or, if age-appropriate, have her walk your dog or a neighbor’s.
It can be tough to get kids out and moving, so exchange exercise time for TV or video time. (Trade 30 minutes of physical activity for 30 minutes of screen time.) Encourage your kids to be active even during TV commercial breaks — challenge them to do jumping jacks, dance or even hula-hoop during this time. And don’t allow “too cold” or “too tired” excuses to get in the way of the day’s needed activity. Bundle up, and wear appropriate clothing and footwear.
Be a Role Model
To keep your kids active and set a good example, make exercise a part of your own daily routine. If you don’t like going to the gym, then turn everyday activities into workout opportunities. For example, take walks with friends rather than talking on the phone, stretch or do floor exercises while watching television or walk at least one lap at the mall before shopping.
Volunteering to coach a children’s sports team can help you as well as your children, as long as you maintain your perspective and stress teamwork, cooperation, skill development and fun, rather than competition.
Proper clothing and accessories can make all the difference in comfort. Dress in layers, starting with a synthetic material such as polypropylene against your skin. This will draw the sweat away from your body and dry quickly. For the second layer, select wool or cotton to soak up moisture. The third layer should keep the cold air and rain out. Don’t forget to wear a hat to keep body heat in, gloves (choose mittens over gloves because the fingers can warm each other) to keep your hands warm and warm socks to insulate your feet. Remember to use sunscreen on your face and lips.
How Much Is Enough?
Unless they have a disability, all children and adolescents should exercise at least 30 to 60 minutes most — if not all — days of the week. Approximately 10 to 15 minutes of this time should include moderate-to-vigorous exercise to get the heart rate elevated. How can you tell if your kids are working out in this range? They’ll breathe rapidly, sweat and experience some tiredness in their arms and legs. Of course, if your child has special health care needs or a chronic condition such as asthma, check with your provider for the appropriate type and amount of exercise.
Finally, to get your kids in the mood to really move, offer a choice of activities, and help them with their skills. Remember, if you help your children feel successful and you encourage them, they will be more likely to try the activity again.
Set a foundation in the first few years of life for what will become a health-giving daily habit. Any form of physical activity that is regular, developmentally appropriate and enjoyable is fine. No one activity is better than another. Choose what’s best for your family. And including other children and friends in activities will increase your kids’ enthusiasm for exercise and make it last.
Karen McCarty, PhD, MSN, MPH, CPNP, is an Associate Professor at the University of Alabama, Capstone College of Nursing. She has practiced for the last ten years in a multidisciplinary pediatric obesity clinic that receives referrals from across the state and region.
Sharon M. Karp, PhD, MSN, RN, CPNP, is a PNP working in primary care and pediatric weight management at Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. She is also an Assistant Professor of Nursing at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.