Exercise truly is the best medicine for so many things. It helps improve sleep, stress, mood and concentration, and it can treat and prevent many medical problems. It also provides an opportunity for families to bond in healthy, memorable ways.
Parents often think that in order to gain benefits from exercise, workouts must be intense or demanding. But research has shown that even short bouts of physical activity are beneficial.
So, how do you make exercise fun for the whole family?
From setting family exercise goals to getting kids outdoors, here are seven expert tips for adding more fitness into daily life.
1. Starting slow with exercise
Going too hard too soon is the biggest problem people run into when starting to exercise, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado nurse practitioners Suzanne Paul, FNP-BC, and Stacie Schreiner, FNP-BC. For most people, going from infrequent or little exercise to long periods of exercise is not going to be practical or sustainable — plus, it’s a good way to end up injured.
Instead, start slowly. For example, begin by taking short walks with your family. You can then increase the time and speed of the walks as you get comfortable. You can always add in more exercise as you go.
Another way to start slowly is to incorporate more movement into your daily activities: for example, taking the stairs rather than the elevator. The more you encourage kids to move, the more likely you are to create a habit and help them be regularly active.
Here are a few additional tips for incorporating physical activity into everyday routines:
- Take five-minute breaks during homework time to move around, or get a standing desk so kids have the option to stand up during homework time.
- If the answer to the math question is 10, your child could do 10 of their favorite exercises (such as 10 jumping jacks).
- Park at the far end of the parking lot at the grocery store to get more steps in.
- Take extra trips through the aisles to move more while filling the cart.
Going to school
- Walk or bike to school with your kids.
- Park several blocks away from school and walk them in or let them walk alone if they are old enough.
2. Define family exercise goals
Setting fitness goals is a great way to stay healthy together, but they don’t have to be difficult. Start with a goal that you know you have time for and can achieve as a family.
For example, a family might decide to walk for 30 minutes a day, four days a week. “They can create a calendar and check those boxes,” Suzanne says. As the checked boxes accumulate, the family gains confidence and satisfaction in goals met.
Set SMART exercise goals
Our Lifestyle Medicine team uses the SMART system of setting goals:
- Specific: What exactly do you want to accomplish?
- Measurable: How will you know you’ve met your goal?
- Attainable: Is the goal realistic and achievable?
- Relevant: Does the goal make sense for your family?
- Timely: How much time will this goal require, and do you have the time?
SMART goals for exercise are a valuable way to set your child up for success when making the switch to a healthier lifestyle. Here are some tips for setting both short-term and long-term goals for your family.
- Hold everyone accountable by setting a long-term family goal (such as running a 5K together).
- Set short-term goals to help you meet your long-term goal. One way to start is by committing to walking one mile as a family at least three times a week — and sticking with it.
- When you reach your family goal, consider a reward that encourages a commitment to physical activity, like getting new running shoes or fitness trackers.
3. Make family exercise enjoyable
One of the biggest obstacles people run into with fitness is thinking they have to do physical activities they don’t enjoy. But exercise shouldn’t feel like a chore. Some people like doing sit-ups and going running, but for those who don’t, there are plenty of other ways to get in shape.
The best way to stick to an exercise regimen is finding something that you like, and the same goes for kids. As sports medicine expert Julie Wilson, MD, explains, the best physical activity for children is whatever they enjoy. “Just get them active,” Dr. Wilson says. “It can be dancing, soccer, running, swimming, football, jumping rope, bike riding — anything that keeps them moving and helps build an active lifestyle."
Get kids active outdoors
Research shows that spending time outdoors can reduce worry and promote a happier mood in children. In turn, the mental health benefits of exercise can have positive physical outcomes, such as improved sleep and fewer anxiety-related stomachaches or headaches. As a result, kids feel more energized and inspired to get outside and stay active.
Getting kids active outdoors doesn’t have to be a huge excursion, either. Our team recommends exploring the options in your neighborhood, such as walking, biking and hiking trails. To make these outings even more fun, parents can add little games or challenges, such as spotting a certain animal or gathering leaves for a craft activity. If your family doesn’t have access to a safe outdoor environment, try visiting school playgrounds and facilities after-hours or finding another space nearby to play or exercise.
Make a list of exercise ideas
Another common misconception about exercise is that it requires paying for a gym membership or other expenses. But all you need to get kids active are activities that are exciting and accessible. Create a list of fun and free ways to stay fit and healthy. Allow your kids to choose from the list to help them get excited about the activity. For example, your list might look like the following:
- Let’s go for a walk.
- It’s time to get the bikes out and go for a ride.
- It’s “wheels” day! Let’s find an empty parking lot where we can safely skateboard, scooter or bike.
- Let’s go play soccer in the park near our house.
- There are plenty of YouTube channels and websites that share free exercise videos for kids. Cosmic Kids Yoga and Fitness Blender are just two examples of many.
- Let’s play a fitness game on the gaming system.
- We’re going to create our own game using a deck of cards or dice (for example, the jack of hearts equals 10 jumping jacks, etc.).
A list can help mix things up, so kids don’t get bored with exercising.
4. Set a good example of family fitness
Kids mirror the behavior of the adults around them. Getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables, drink water instead of juice or soda and increase their physical activity is often as simple as making these same changes as a parent — and it helps if the extended family gets involved, too.
“Have fruits and vegetables available as snacks throughout the day and avoid unhealthy snacks like soda, chips and cookies as much as possible,” Stacie says.
Similarly, try modeling enthusiasm for health and exercise by sticking to the family-defined schedule and discussing the importance of exercise to your life and well-being. If you care deeply about physical fitness, chances are, your kids will, too.
How to make time for exercise
Think about how you can incorporate regular physical activity into your daily life as a family. For example, consider the following activities:
- Kick a soccer ball around the yard for 30 minutes.
- Set up an obstacle course in your yard or neighborhood park (or indoors in colder seasons).
- Turn on some music and have a dance party.
- Take a 20-minute walk after dinner.
- Play a game of tag.
Whatever you do together make sure you’re putting each other first. “Most of all, what can help is just living in the moment,” Suzanne says. “Just spending time as a family and enjoying each other’s company can take focus off distractions and build bonds. It can also make doing activities as a family something parents and kids look forward to.”
Valuable time at home can lead you to the path of a healthy lifestyle. Often, it’s not in speeding up, but in slowing down where we find the most progress.
5. Get plenty of sleep
Many parents have questions about kids’ sleep. Not getting enough sleep can make you feel tired and physically fatigued, making exercise unappealing. Sleep and exercise are also related because sleep allows muscles time to recover, so kids can continue getting stronger on their journey to greater fitness. Sleep can benefit other aspects of kids’ lives, too. “Getting sufficient, quality sleep is important for overall health, including school performance, behavior and weight,” Suzanne says.
To promote better sleep, it’s important to establish routines and stick with bedtimes. Have your child go to bed and wake up at the same time each day to ensure an appropriate amount of sleep. Also consider recommended ways to help your child sleep, such as avoiding electronics for an hour before bedtime and creating a cool and dark bedroom environment.
6. Limit screen time
Limiting screen time is important, but it can seem like a big challenge when so much of our day is filled with computers, televisions or tablets. Stacie recommends setting limits on, rather than trying to eliminate, screen time. “When the time limit is up, you turn it off. Then you have more time to spend together as a family, and it can be fun.”
Screen breaks are a great opportunity to get outside, and they can be done as a family to foster bonding. This can help everyone relax, make time for physical activity and feel more refreshed and focused to concentrate on school and work after the break. Additionally, you can schedule breaks to match screen time with outdoor time. For example, 30 minutes of screen time can equal 30 minutes of time outdoors.
Another fun idea is to incorporate physical activity challenges into screen time. For example, you can see how many jumping jacks, push-ups or sit-ups your family can do during a commercial break.
Active vs. passive screen time
Considering active versus passive screen time may also help you regulate your child’s interactions with screens. Active screen time refers to screen time that engages your child cognitively or creatively, such as an interactive game show or a kids’ yoga video. Passive screen time involves passively receiving information, such as watching a non-educational show. Of course, the whole family can enjoy watching a movie recreationally from time to time with no negative effects. But too much passive screen time can come at the expense of important social interactions and developmental milestones that you don’t want your child to miss out on. Screens aren’t problematic on their own, but it’s important to balance them just like everything else in life.
7. Maintaining a healthy weight range
Prioritizing health and fitness goals as a family is also important for maintaining a healthy weight range. Everyone’s body is different, so it can help to speak with a pediatrician at your child's annual well-care visit to determine how your child’s weight may impact their overall health.
Remember: Food is fuel. In the same way that a car needs the right fuel to run, healthy food fuels and energizes our bodies to meet the demands of daily life. Eating well and maintaining a healthy weight range is also important for preventing illness and disease. One in four children in Colorado experiences obesity — a condition that can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, which has increased by 95% in people under age 20 over the past two decades. Similarly, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, which is marked by undereating, have also increased among youths. This demonstrates the importance of eating a balanced diet and fostering healthy relationships to food, exercise and body image.
To help your children maintain a healthy weight range, consider keeping snack and mealtimes consistent, especially during the summer months, and offering the recommended portion sizes by age. (You can create a personalized food plan through MyPlate.) Prepare healthy meals ahead of time on Sunday nights, so that kids have pre-planned lunches or dinners throughout the week, and there’s less pressure on you to cook after a long day at school or work.
If you’re embarking on family-friendly exercise outings, consider bringing healthy snacks for kids, such as pre-cut fruits and vegetables. This way, you’ll have nutritious snacks to keep you energized on your journey.
The earlier children start with building healthy habits, like eating a balanced diet and exercising, the easier it’ll be to maintain these practices later in life.