Make physical fitness a family affair 

by Jeffrey Tanji, M.D.

About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey Tanji is a director of the UC Davis Sports Medicine program. 

He sees patients at the UC Davis Sports Medicine Clinic at 2805 J Street, Ste. 300 in Sacramento.

Make physical fitness a family affair

FACT: More than half of children are not vigorously active on a regular basis.

FACT: Physical activity declines dramatically in adolescence.

I am a firm believer in family fitness. It enhances the health and mood of every member of the family, whatever the age. Inactive children tend to grow into sedentary adults. I challenge parents to "activate" their families and start a pattern for their kids of lifelong physical activity. It is truly a gift for the family.

People who are physically fit are at reduced risk for a variety of illnesses and disabilities. They are less likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some types of cancer. People who exercise regularly have less feelings of depression and anxiety and feel a heightened sense of well-being. Fitness also keeps weight down and helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints.  

Whatever form of exercise you pick, make sure you enjoy doing it. Only then can it become a routine, rather than a chore in your life.

I recommend that everyone incorporate at least 20 to 60 minutes of physical activity into most days of the week. At this point, many people roll their eyes at me. How can you find another hour of the day when you are already over-committed with work, family, and social obligations?

But I know it can be done. Achieving family fitness does not mean you must all go to the gym together to work-out for an hour each day (though this does work for some families, particularly if children are older). In fact, for most families, it is better not just to "set aside" time, but to incorporate activity naturally into the course of the day. How? Here are some tips:

  • Optimize relaxation or "down-time." Instead of watching TV, go outside and play catch or shoot some hoops. If it is dark, consider taking family night jogs or walks. Small kids, especially, love making an adventure of this with a flashlight. Another good time to get out of the house and  run around with the kids is while one parent is cooking dinner. 

  • Incorporate more walking, roller blading and bicycling into your daily routine. Think of them as your main transportation for running errands and going to school and friends. Many people find that they have the additional benefit of slowing down their life a bit and having more quality time with their kids when they aren't always rushing to drive to the next commitment.

  • Set aside a family "work time," with every member of the family doing active housecleaning, window-washing and gardening. This, too, is exercise!

  • Plan an active outing each weekend and holiday, such as a bike ride or a walk, kite-flying, swimming or a trip to the track for jogging and family fun races.  

  • Buy sports equipment for presents for your family and others, such as frisbees, balls, jump ropes and other active toys.

  • Encourage kids who seek jobs to look for active ones, such as delivering papers or gardening.

Family walking togetherActivities should be age-appropriate for each member of the family. Walking, cycling, swimming and informal games are usually good exercise at any age. Children under 8 years should be encouraged to play, not "exercise." Older kids may start focusing on team or individual sports. Starting at about age 15, kids transition into adult activities, when more formal exercise and weight training is appropriate. Whatever form of exercise you pick, make sure you enjoy doing it. Only then can it become a routine, rather than a chore in your life.

Until your family becomes "activated," you may have to schedule active times into your day, like anything else important. Think of activity as your family's "medicine."  If you had to take a pill each day to keep yourself healthy, you would make it a priority to remember to do so. Fitness takes a few more minutes of the day than swallowing a pill, but it is just as important.

FACT: Families I know that incorporate exercise into their daily lives are happier, more relaxed and physically healthier. Make it a priority for your family! You'll be glad you did.