We all know the benefits of exercise. It can improve our physical and mental health and help expand our social circles. It's as close to a panacea as we're likely to get.
It's also the best way to get children to use that boundless energy for personal good rather than public destruction.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week, plus muscle-strengthening exercise two days a week. Children and teens need even more exercise: At least 60 minutes each day, according to the CDC. Yet only 20 percent of adults and 25 percent of children ages 12 to 15 get the recommended amount of exercise.
We don't have the time. We're distracted by all those shiny devices. We're horrible about procrastinating. We're so busy shuttling our kids from soccer to swimming to art class that we can't seem to squeeze in our own fitness.
Whatever the reason, parents and children are not taking advantage of the one thing that can reliably make us feel better all around. So this is a call to time-strapped parents and children to put down their smartphones and tablets and get active together.
By exercising as a family, you'll have a built-in support system. When dad is dragging after a long day at work, the 12-year-old can remind him that fitness is a family priority. If everyone is working together, the odds of being successful at reaching fitness goals are much greater, said David Buer, a personal trainer in Atlanta. Family exercise can also give you a fun shared activity that can continue as kids age into those awkward teen years. You know, when they can't get far enough away from their oh-so-annoying parents.
“Beyond the obvious health and physical benefits, it's a bonding experience,” Buer said. “You're leading by example and imprinting these healthy habits that potentially will last a lifetime. It's also great one-on-one time.”
We're not talking about running a marathon with your 12-year-old next month, trying to keep up with your young lacrosse star on the field or buying a bunch of expensive equipment. You can choose an activity that is fun, inexpensive and (relatively) painless.
We spoke to experts in six types of exercise that parents can do with their children. They shared tricks to keep the whining to a minimum and their favorite places to work up a sweat. Here are their suggestions on how to try biking, hiking, rock climbing, running, stand-up paddling and yoga as a family.
Megan Odett, a mom of two who lives in Washington, D.C., used to bike for transportation. After a complicated pregnancy with her first child, who is now 4, she found herself battling postpartum depression. So she got back on her bike and brought her son, Alex, along.
“Getting back on a bike with him was my path to physical and emotional recovery,” said Odett, who rode with her son strapped into a trailer in his car seat until he graduated to a bike seat. She commutes by bicycle each day, dropping the kids at day care and preschool on her way to work, and the older boy travels alongside her on recreational rides now, on his balance bike.
“We're going at a slower speed and can enjoy the world around us more,” Odett said. “You can see more when you're riding than when you're driving, and we have the opportunity to stop and explore things that interest us along the way.”
Odett is the founder and organizer of Kidical Mass D.C., a group that leads child-friendly bike rides.
Before taking a child out on the road, Odett said, make sure he can handle his bike, including stopping and starting reliably. It's also important for him to have good impulse control.
Jennifer Chambers started taking her daughter on hikes in an infant carrier when she was about 4 weeks old. Over Memorial Day weekend, Chambers and her daughter, who is now 13, hiked 40 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania with some friends.
Chambers owns Hiking Along, an organization that leads children in preschool through high school on hikes. The hikes incorporate hands-on science activities. The combination of hiking and science came from Chambers' 18 years as a special education teacher.
We asked Chambers to share her secrets to keep the whining to a minimum.
Along with packing plenty of snacks, bringing a friend and letting the kids go at their own pace, she said it's important to pick the right trail. And when it comes to kids, that's usually anything with rocks or water. She also suggested bringing along a hand lens, binoculars or a nature journal and markers for the child to use along the way.
Scaling a 40-foot sheer rock wall with nothing but blue sky between you and the ground may not be for those of us with acrophobia.
But for 12-year-old Arabella Jariel of Herndon, Virginia, and her parents, Jennie and Ike, it's the perfect way to unwind as a family.
“It's both physically and mentally challenging, because there are times that, in addition to the physical part, you have to push past your fear,” said Jennie Jariel, who started climbing when she was in college. “As a family, we help each other with that.”
Arabella started climbing when she was 7 and has been competing with the team at Earth Treks in Rockville, Maryland, since she was 8. Jennie Jariel said it's perfect for them because while Arabella is practicing at the gym, she and Ike can climb, as well. They take family trips to places such as Red River Gorge in Kentucky to climb together.
Families interested in trying rock climbing can go to an open climb session at a local gym before committing to classes, Jennie Jariel said.
Children are hard-wired to run, even if it's just laps around the house in the morning before school. They have lots of energy, and it has to come out. So if running is your thing, it's easy to loop them into your exercise program.
Kristen Komlosy, the executive director of Girls on the Run D.C., runs with her two boys, who are 7 and 10, about three times a week. Both boys play sports, including basketball and lacrosse. She cheers from the sidelines while they play, but running is something she can do with them.
“They think it's great to keep up with Mom, or to try to beat Mom,” Komlosy said. “They get to release some energy, do something they enjoy and walk away with a sense of accomplishment.”
Jenny Hadfield, a columnist for RunnersWorld.com, suggests using progress charts to keep everyone motivated. Kids can keep track of the miles they've logged or how much they've improved their time over the course of the month.
She also said parents can turn running into a scavenger hunt, with a map and toys hidden around your running route, to make it fun for kids.
Many local schools host 1-mile fun runs and 5Ks, which can be great events for parents and children to enter together. Komlosy and her sons have been doing those 1-mile kids' runs together. The boys have recently expressed interest in trying a 5K, so training for that will be the next step, she said.
Hadfield said that most races for preschoolers are between 1/4 and 1/2 mile. Some children are ready to train for a 5K by the time they are 7, Hadfield said, but it's always best to consult your pediatrician to make sure a race is appropriate for your child.
For Carleen Birnes, owner of Mantra Fit in Arnold, Maryland, stand-up paddling is a relaxing, low-impact activity that she can share with her 6-year-old daughter, Reese Birnes Grindle. The fact that it gets them outdoors is a bonus.
“You can't be on a screen when you're on the water balancing,” she said. “Stand-up paddling forces you to be in nature. Even on a hike, you can still be looking at your phone or taking pictures. This forces you to be present and aware of the water and boats moving around you.”
The balance work benefits kids' brain and muscle development, Birnes said, and helps with coordination. And because it's low-impact, people who can't run because of joint problems can participate.
“People think it looks so hard. It's not,” Birnes said. “You just need to get over the misconception that you need really good balance to do it. You just need a stable board and the balance will come as you get stronger. It's the perfect blend of being challenging to your core and (mentally) restorative.”
Birnes does not recommend the activity for children younger than 6, because they have to be able to manage the paddle. Sometimes when she's with her daughter, they will paddle out to an island together, then Birnes will use a rope to tow Reese back if she gets tired. Other parents like to have their child sit on the front of the board while they paddle, she said.
Liliana Lopez of Bethesda, Maryland, and her daughter, Beka Dychtwald, 9, started going to the family classes at Circle Yoga in Washington as a way to bond after Lopez and her husband divorced two years ago. Lopez found yoga to be a great way to relieve her stress and wanted to share those benefits with her daughter.
“I wanted to bring her into the whole idea of taking a pause and just breathing,” Lopez said. “Children nowadays don't take pauses, they're constantly going. She was getting sports at school almost every day, but I wanted her to do more of a mindful type of activity.”
They attend classes together every other Saturday, when Beka is with Lopez for the weekend.
Linda Feldman, the director of programming at Circle Yoga, said family classes are more playful than a regular yoga class, and they incorporate games and poses you can do with a partner.