Whether you are ready to admit it or not, children model virtually all their behavior after adults who are most visible in their lives. From birth, parents, grandparents, and guardians provide children with an example of how to live, offering subtle cues about everything from manners to nutrition and exercise. It should therefore, come as no surprise that if you want to install certain habits in your children, you must provide a living example. It is not true that ‘Do as I say and not as I do,’ will get us very far with the average child.
Through you, as a parent or relative, children can learn that exercise is a regular part of life — as common as brushing one’s teeth. Perhaps the strongest message can be sent by doing things together. It’s not enough for a child to see an adult head off to a dance class three times a week. We need to engage children in activities as well, but activities appropriate to their age. I know, you’re thinking that you are busy with work and family and don’t have time to incorporate your children and your exercise together.
Here are two helpful strategies:
- Ask children if they want to come along while you jog or run. Plan ‘robust’ family outings such as cycling or skating which will allow everyone to exercise and gives you more time for your workout. You’ll be surprised when your children come along and begin to talk about how they have been put off by your workout program which excludes them.
- If you work out at a local track, school, or spa, there may be other areas, such as an infield, where you can keep in contact with your child and yet they can have fun and exercise at the same time. During your breaks in exercise make sure you join the child to applaud their accomplishments and a plan a trip for a healthy drink after you are done.
Before starting a program for you and your children, check with your family physician or pediatrician to make sure that your child is healthy. If overweight, get guide lines on how to start a family exercise program. Remember that as our society continues to become more technologically sophisticated, our children and we will have less physical demands so that the amount of exercise may or may not be what you think is necessary.
If you are diabetic, remember the drill from each and every article in this exercise chapter of our magazine. Adding extra exercise may mean adding carbohydrates, decreasing meds or some of your insulin, but for sure it means checking in with your health team. ‘Bad stuff happens,’ but none of us want a hypoglycemic attack in front of our children or grandchildren, so know how to prevent them while enjoying your time together. Many families join a local family based facility like a ‘Y’ so that they can find activities that are not too strenuous for children but are challenging for adults. Swimming is one of the best family activities. Lessons for children with parents available for support and a lane for adult laps make for a pleasant work out for all. When everyone can swim, pool games, races, and boating trips are in order. Then the sky’s the limit with all sorts of boating sports, snorkeling, diving etc.
Water sports are only one area that the family can enjoy. Running and walking are another options. Young children may start with a mile course, but your older children will soon outpace you and certainly out distance you. How proud can you get?
In our family, tennis was the game. Our son stared at 3 years old. He would come to the court and play with balls, running after them, practice throwing, and later, practice hitting against a wall. We had parties by the court so that it was a mixture of learning, exercise, and just plain family fun. In no time, or so it seemed, our small son was over six feet tall, and was ranked. Today, we have a hard time seeing his serve come over the net as it scorches the air. Proud does not begin to define how we feel. But now comes the kicker. As much as our son loves tennis, he loves exercise more. He plays basketball, baseball, ice hockey and every other team sport he can fit into his busy schedule. Will the same thing work for all children? The answer is that each child is different and you have to find what they like after they get the message that exercise is important to the family.
Our daughter did not like tennis as much. It’s hard following a brother who excels at a sport. She’ll play socially and enjoys the game, but she needed a sport that made her brother quiver and so she took up horse back riding. The two of us rode through the hills of Maryland and Virginia on weekends, and she learned to jump, competing in shows and winning ribbons of every color. The fact that her brother was afraid of the 15 hand ‘beasts’ made all that practice even sweeter. Today as a young professional in the Big Apple, she goes to a gym and runs in marathons, one for the fight to cure diabetes. Both of our children know the importance of exercise for their health. They know their genetic pool and therefore, live healthy lives. How sad that our parents did not exercise with us so that we missed special times together.
What are some other suggestions from the experts? Gymnastics, treadmill, and climbing are also recommended for families. Climbing walls are available for children from age two and up. Older children may join you in body sculpting and lifting weights. Also families can find aerobics classes with easy routines for young children and more complex ones for adolescents. If you don’t like aerobics, try line dancing or any other type of dancing. I know families that go to Karate together. What exercises do experts say are not appropriate? These include kick-boxing, power lifting, and long-distance running.
Now is the time to think about the positive aspects of family exercise. In our hectic lives, this is a time to teach stress reduction to our children. It is a time to enjoy our children and them us. Playing games that everyone enjoys is just a Martha Stewart ‘good thing’ — Martha, by the way, is one of the most physically active persons we know, actively involved in a wide variety of sports and who daily exercises even when traveling throughout the world. Our children will begin to understand how good exercise makes them feel. Their bodies will be muscular.
They will walk through time and space with ease and they will have a better sense of self. This can only enhance their ability to perform their daily job, i.e. learning. Socially, a child who knows he/she is good at something has an easier time relating to other children. Problem solving on the tennis court facilitates a child’s trying to solve difficult problems, both academic and social. One added benefit of having our children exercise is that we won’t have to put them on strict weight loss diets which may or may not set them up for a life time of the same. All you have to do is to plan for healthy meals and snacks at home and by in large, your children will comply. We all cheat, and ‘fried anything with friends’ tastes great, but the child who feels good about his/her body, does not need to sneak food or binge.
So now for your part of the process. Think of seasonal exercise — ice skating and skiing in the winter, hiking in the spring, swimming and water skiing in the summer and inline skating in the fall. Even as your children grow and spend less time with you, their interest in exercise will keep them on the right path to well being, and you will have given them a way of life that will ultimately provide them with a chance to not develop our diabetes, heart conditions, hypertension, and other medical complications.