Families are pulled into so demands and distractions, and away from living healthy together. I've worked with several couples and families to improve their exercise and nutrition and I want to share the best ways I've found to help all ages get healthy together.
Your journey starts with questions:
- What are the personalities of your family members? Who is competitive? Who is high-energy? Who prefers solo or methodical activities? On the other hand, who gets bored easily or wants lots of people involved? While no one will get their liking every time, include each person's regularly.
- What are the strengths of each family member? Organized? Research-oriented? Creative? Curious? You'll want to use each person's strengths to get them excited about the activities. For example, who can research what supplies to take on a day-hike? Who can find three hiking trails to pick between? Who can pack sandwiches for after a hike? The answers should not all be "Mom."
- Is your goal to get everyone active and eating well for the moment or to stimulate a love of movement and good food for a lifetime? (I'm going to guess the latter, so my ideas below reflect a lifetime goal.)
Physical Activity ideas I have seen be fantastic for busy families:
- Walk and talk. This foundational activity is so important. Even just once a week, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, allows a free-flow of conversation and builds trust. My personal experience is from my mother and I walking when I was very young. By the time I hit my teenage years and needed a sounding-board, we were already in the habit of walking and talking.
- Jump-rope contests for the competitive ones. And talk about funny video/photo moments!
- Too cold out? Do what my friend, Devika Kumar (the owner of Hendersonville CycleBar) does with her daughter - turn on some funky music and have a dance-off.
- Martial arts. Most martial arts gyms have both adult and youth classes available. If there is traditional exercise equipment available, parents can lift weights/cycle while the kids are in class. Then the kids can do homework while the parents are taking class. It's not "together" - but it is a shared experience you can discuss.
- Water sports. Kayak. Canoe. Sail-boat. Stand-up paddleboard. Unless you live by the water, these are not daily activities. But they are great to add in the activity mix and fun motivation, learning skills together. "The reason we are doing X exercise is so we won't be sore when we paddleboard this summer."
- Cycling. Depending on your neighborhood your kids may ride bikes all summer, or you may take them to a park to ride. Simply get a bike for yourself and join them. And those squats you are doing during the winter will help you with that this summer.
- Gardening. Start small. (Containers or a 4'x4' raised bed.) This is a great way to introduce kids to how food is grown and get them away from the screen and into the sunshine.
- Hiking. A classic family exercise. But with a few challenges to overcome. One family I took hiking had one child who was older and faster. The younger child, said she wanted hike the "tough trail" - and, as anticipated, half-way through started complaining. Watching for frogs, bugs, deer, and so forth proved the distraction she needed. Lesson? Even if a child says "let's do the big one" - stick to the easier trails first.
- Movement games. This idea goes against "traditional" exercise. I worked with a family whose father was a "go-hard-or-go-home" exerciser. The 10-ish year old girls were not. My goal was to create movement the girls enjoyed and memories that would encourage them to stay active all of their lives. Frisbee golf, roller-blading, tag games, and so on got them moving and sweating...at least with each other and with Mom.
What about healthy eating for busy families?
- One family decided to take one summer and deeply connect. Little to no electronics and gadgets and passive-entertainment. They spent their free time cooking from scratch, walking and playing games, and doing projects around the house. "Busy" did not allow them to do that during the school year, but for a few weeks during the summer they traded passive-busy for connection and healthy eating. Even now the mother says she keeps some of the cooking habits she taught herself that summer. (Side note: the family lost weight without trying.)
- A family I helped start eating healthy decided to divide the meal duties as follows: together they (or the mom/dad) decide the menu for the week and write it on the kitchen chalkboard; the parents order the food; the son (who wants opportunities to drive) picks up the food; the father and daughter have weekly connection time while pre-chopping the veggies for the week; the mom gets her creative outlet in cooking - without having to cut vegetables every day. Then the kids alternate nights cleaning the kitchen. The family discovered and used each person's strengths.
Three tips for the "busy-ness":
- As kids get older and want to hang out with friends, invite the friends to participate in the exercise or cooking. This means less time playing chauffeur.
- "Together" does not have to be "physically together" all of the time. If your goal as a family is to run/walk a 5K together, everyone can train during the week when their schedule allows, then train together on Saturday mornings.
- Sports-families (like my cousin's above) have a challenge. Perhaps one child is in baseball and basketball. Another in gymnastics and swimming. A third is hooked on video-games. What I've seen work beautifully is each year encouraging each child to select one sport, so there is more time for family activity. The video-games? You have to decide how you want to limit that. But while you are waiting on the baseball game to start, frisbee in the parking lot sounds like a lot more fun to me.