Family Fitness Across the Generations

Last Editorial Review: 4/13/2005

3 ways to get the whole family fit -- together

By Wendy C. Fries
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Exercise is good for the body. Family togetherness is good for the spirit. So why not put two good things together and do a workout the whole family can enjoy?

Here are three types of exercise that can include kids, parents, and grandparents, providing fitness and fun for everyone from 7 to 77.

Walking: The Perennial Favorite

Almost everyone can walk, and we can do it just about anywhere, from tots and parents strolling the sidewalks to grandparents and grandkids speed-walking at the mall.

We all know that regular physical activity, like walking, helps control weight and reduces risks for heart attack, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. But walking is more than good for you -- it can also add pleasure to your day.

"Don't forget to up the fun," advises Brigitte Mesa, a walking enthusiast who lives in New Jersey.

We're all more likely to exercise when it's disguised as something else, Mesa says. That's why she and her husband spice up their walking workouts with Frisbee throwing, nature hikes, dog walks, sightseeing, and picnics in the park.

Here are more tips for fun walking workouts, from WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members and other locomotion lovers:

  • Have a favorite family restaurant nearby? Walk there (and, of course, keep an eye on portion sizes once you arrive).
  • Encourage your kids to walk to school, then join them. If you have toddlers who can't keep up with the big kids, bring them along in their own little red wagon.
  • Walk for a cause. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Avon, The March of Dimes, and many other groups put on walks to raise money for good causes.
  • Take to the hills! Even moderate hills get the heart pumping. If it's a grassy and not-too-steep slope, try rolling to the bottom along with the kids.
  • When it's cold out, bundle up and enjoy walking-related activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
  • On balmy days, try playing tag at the beach, hiking around a pond, or roller-skating.
  • Wet outside? Grab your group for a couple of loops around the mall. Walk, speed-walk, climb up and down the stairs -- and keep on moving past the food court!

Swimming: Cool Down, Get Fit

The equation is simple: Kids love water, and water workouts are easy on weary adult joints. That adds up to an activity that's suitable for all ages.

"The water provides something for everyone," says Julie See, president of the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA).

One simple activity that a child and an adult can do together is water walking in the shallow end of the pool, See says. And since water is 12 times more resistant than air, this can provide quite a workout.

"Vary the style of walking -- forward, backward, lateral travel -- to utilize all the major muscles for a balanced workout," she says.

Pool toys are also great for playing games with the kids. Pick up rings from the bottom of the pool, or play basketball with a floating hoop, See suggests. Have a herd of foam "noodles?" Climb aboard your buoyant steeds and race to the end of the pool.

If your clan includes mostly adults, try getting on your bike and riding -- in the water. Some pools offer water spinning classes on "hydroriders," while others give pool-based classes in kickboxing, yoga, Pilates, and strength training (using foam dumbbells).

"I've seen a new generation in the pool" since gyms started offering things like water kickboxing, says Mark Grevelding, a continuing education provider with the AEA. "Boomers are aging, so aquatic workouts will become the hottest fitness trend."

Strength Training: The Missing Component?

The experts agree: strength training is an important part of an overall fitness program.

For adults, it can increase fat-burning muscle and help improve bone health. For older adults, the benefits can be even greater. It not only boosts muscle strength, but it also improves balance, coordination, mobility, and may reduce arthritis symptoms, according to the CDC.

Would it surprise you to learn that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that strength training is a healthy and fun fitness option for kids? (Keep in mind that healthy strength training is about getting sensibly stronger, not power lifting).

When children are well-supervised and use proper technique, strength training can help them increase endurance, improve heart and lung function, build stronger bones, and lower cholesterol levels.

So when is a child ready to learn strength training? It depends on the child, experts say.

But if a child is old enough to take part in organized sports at age 7 or 8, he or she is probably mature enough for strength training, Avery Faigenbaum, EdD, FACSM, CSCS, writes in an article on the American Fitness Professionals and Associates web site. Faigenbaum is an associate professor of exercise Science at The College of New Jersey.

To keep strength training with kids fun and safe, follow these guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Have the child see a pediatrician before starting a strength-training program.
  • For maximum health benefits, make sure the child gets aerobic exercise as well.
  • All strength-training workouts should include both a warm-up and cool-down.
  • Children should start training with no weights. Once they learn the exercise, weight can be added a little at a time.
  • Before increasing weight or resistance, the child should be able to do 8-15 repetitions of the exercise with good form.
  • A good general strengthening program involves all major muscle groups and the complete range of motion.
  • If a child shows any sign of injury of illness from strength training, have him or her evaluated before continuing the exercise.

Get Checked, Then Have Fun

Before anyone takes up a new workout -- no matter what their age -- it's a good idea to talk with a doctor first. That's especially true if they haven't been active for awhile.

After that, involving loved ones in your fitness plans not only leads to a fitter family, it also lets you demonstrate your commitment to good health. And that's strong medicine!

Published April 15, 2005.

SOURCES: Julie See, president, Aquatic Exercise Association. Mark Grevelding, continuing education provider, Aquatic Exercise Association. Brigitte Mesa, New Jersey. WebMD Feature: "Strength Training Safe and Effective for Kids," by Jeanie Lerche Davis, published June 5, 2001. American Fitness Professionals and Associates. CDC.

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