When the pandemic emerged last March, one of the many challenges families faced also became one of our greatest joys: finding safe options for family fitness.
We have long enjoyed mountain biking, and with more than 24 miles of trails in Bristol, there’s no shortage of routes to choose from. But when COVID-19 limited exercise options to those that could be performed at a safe distance, we decided to share our passion with our sons—Colin, 3, and Graham, 7—in a bigger way.
We began to schedule time for biking, especially on weekends, when we could usually count on uninterrupted family time. At first, Colin rode behind one of us in a pull-along seat; now, he rides in the front of the bike. Meanwhile, Graham, who had just learned to ride a bicycle, gained the confidence and experience to navigate a mountain bike with ease. Biking became an outlet for adventure, even amid the pandemic—and it strengthened our connections to one another.
In 2021, with the promise of a new year ahead, our experience demonstrates the value of an “everyone-in” approach to family fitness.
Riding into 2021 with a Fitness Focus
Exercising as a family offers more than a chance to strengthen relationships or rev up activity levels for better health. It’s also an integral opportunity to release stress—critical during the pandemic, when the pressures of social distancing, at-home learning, remote work and close quarters weigh heavily on adults and children alike.
Regular exercise improves sleep, reduces stress, increases attention span and improves learning. It also increases physical and cardiovascular health while minimizing illness. When parents incorporate family exercise as part of their routine, they help their children develop healthy fitness habits that stick with them as they grow into adults. They also strengthen their own resilience. Since our family made mountain biking a weekly pursuit, we’ve found that we both have more energy to play with our kids after work and have even lost some weight.
In our experience, there are four ways families can make fitness fun for everyone involved.
No. 1: Pick an activity the whole family will enjoy. Turning fitness into family fun time helps ensure that the family’s fitness endeavors will “stick” over the long term. It also increases individual engagement, establishing a foundation for regular exercise and good health. When the entire family exercises together, everyone benefits from the release of endorphins that boost mood. Kids and teens also tend to let their guard down in environments such as this, promoting an open atmosphere that can lead to candid conversations on topics that matter most to kids.
No. 2: Start small. Keep physical activities simple, and keep everyone’s activity level in mind in determining how to spend fitness minutes. For instance, if your family hasn’t spent a lot of time exercising together, consider a walk around the block after dinner each evening to introduce regular movement as part of your routine. If you decide to take up running, build up endurance over time, beginning with short distances and stop-and-start bursts of activity.
No. 3: Keep age levels in mind. This helps not only in selecting the right activities, but also in avoiding burnout for any family member. Since many kids like competition, look for ways to build in family friendly challenges (“Who can do the most jumping jacks?”) to pique and maintain interest. At HMG, our president and CEO, Dr. Fowler, took family fitness challenges to another level when he and one of his daughters starred in CBS’ “Amazing Race.”
In our family, our boys like to make obstacle courses around the house and see who can complete them the fastest. Graham is in karate class where he does fitness challenges which includes squats, sit ups and pushups. We use that fitness challenge to have family competitions to see who can do the most in one minute. The boys love it! We also like to celebrate fitness wins, such as when Graham mastered riding a bike.
No. 4: Mark your calendar. The average family has more time commitments than it does time to meet them, from homework to after-school activities, household chores and more. It can seem impossible to fit one more thing into the family’s schedule, even when it has the potential to benefit everyone’s health. As physicians, we have both found that scheduling time for family fitness holds us to our goal of making exercise a priority. It also ensures that any other outside activities are built around this commitment.
Making the time for exercise is one of the most important examples that parents can set for their children. It’s also a pursuit that can have lifelong dividends for parents and kids alike. This New Year, put your best foot forward by making family fitness fun in 2021.