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Eat healthier. Exercise more. We all know that getting in shape more or less boils down to these two rules — but following them is easier said than done.
As operations manager of Lifestyle Medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Renee Porter (RN, MS, DNP) helps a lot of families get in shape, and she’s intimately familiar with the barriers between families and healthy lifestyles. Chief among them: too much to do already. But the key, says Porter, is not cramming exercise and healthy eating into an already busy schedule, but to reprioritize daily activities and make healthy choices a part of the routine.
Of course, that’s not so easy to do, either, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Porter offers these five tips for staying on track:
1. Start slow The biggest problem people run into right off the bat, says Porter, is going too hard too soon. Shows like The Biggest Loser show people going from not exercising at all to exercising six hours a day, and for most people, that approach is not going to be practical or sustainable — plus, it’s a good way to end up injured.
Instead, set modest goals and make it a priority to achieve them. As you get comfortable with what you’re already doing, you can always work in more as you go.
2. Set SMART goals Start with a goal that you know you have time for and can achieve as a family. At Lifestyle Medicine, Porter 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?
Relevant: Does the goal make sense for your family?
Timely: How much time will this goal require, and do you have the time?
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,” Porter says. As the boxes accumulate, the family gains confidence and satisfaction in goals met.
3. Make it fun One of the biggest obstacles people and families run into with fitness is they think they have to do something they actually don’t like to do. 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.
Going for a walk as a family is one, and even just getting outside for a while is better than, say, sitting on the couch and watching TV. Porter recommends exploring the options in your neighborhood, such as walking and biking trails, or checking out neighborhood rec centers, many of which have pools and gyms and offer free admission and programs for kids.
4. Limit screen time This one’s pretty simple: set limits on screen time and stick to them. “Then there’s no argument,” says Porter. “When the time limit is up, you turn it off. Then you have more time to spend together as a family, and then it can be fun.”
5. Get plenty of sleep Not getting enough sleep can make you feel not just sleepy-tired, but physically fatigued, making exercise seem unappealing. “Getting sufficient, quality sleep is important for overall health, including school performance, behavior and weight,” Porter says. “We often work with families to set age-appropriate bedtimes.”
6. Set a good example Kids mirror the behavior of the adults around them, and getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables, drink water instead of soda and increase their physical activity is often as simple as making these changes as a parent — and it helps if the extended family does, too. “Studies show that if a parent eats fruits and vegetables, their children are more likely to eat these foods, too,” says Porter.
Most of all, Porter says, what can help is just living in the moment. With work, school, lessons, practices and everything else, parents can often spend all their time in the future, one step ahead. Just spending time as a family, enjoying each other’s company, can take focus off distractions and build bonds, and make doing activities as a family something parents and kids alike look forward to. Sometimes, it turns out, the path to a healthy lifestyle is not in speeding up, but in slowing down.