Fitness is often a solitary pursuit, an exercise in personal betterment undertaken when their children are with a baby sitter or playing in the kids' room at the gym.
But parents who exercise with their children not only get healthier, but strengthen the family's bond, say health professionals who advocate exercise as a solution for both the nation's obesity epidemic and increasing family instability.
“There are all kinds of ways that physical activity enables good family relationships,” said Sylvia Rimm, a psychologist and director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland.
Exercise not only improves health, but increases self-confidence and reduces anxiety in children, said Rimm, the author of 24 books on parenting, including "See Jane Win" and "Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children."
Exercising together, however, can make the family unit stronger, not just its individual parts.
“It really bonds families,” Rimm said. “Kids aren’t as oppositional; they feel a closeness to their parents, and they are able to identify with their parents as more than working people.”
With two-third of American adults overweight or obese (and one-third of children), getting the whole family off the couch at the same time can be daunting, particularly since both parents work outside the home in 6 out of 10 families, and children often have homework and extracurricular activities.
But the benefits suggest families should make it a priority, and one doctor says that a successful effort often starts with the mother.
Dr. Ron Eaker, an ob/gyn in Augusta, Georgia, and author of the book "Healthy Habits for a Fit Family," said he began emphasizing family exercise to his patients after reading research about the influence mothers have on their family's habits.
“Seventy to 75 percent of the time, it’s the woman in the family who makes the decision when it comes to wellness and preventive care. When the mom starts adopting certain health behaviors, it metastasizes to the rest of the family,” Eaker said.
When women realize this, it makes them more likely to exercise themselves, he added, since many feel guilty if they spend time working out, because it takes time away from their children. But the opposite is true, Eaker said: When parents exercise, their children are more likely to do it themselves, and over time, the family can, in some ways, rewrite its genetic history.
“Genetics play a role in a lot of health issues, but we’re finding more and more now that environment and behavior have a role in reducing health risks. You’re not a captive of your genetics. That gives you control back, and helps to motivate you,” he said.
Moreover, he said, the effects can be passed down to future generations, when people stop believing lies like “I will always be fat; it’s in my genetics.”
“You can reshape the culture of your family,” Eaker said.
In its recently released dietary guidelines, the U.S. government stresses the need for vigorous exercise for both children and adults for optimal health.
Adults should exercise at moderate levels of intensity for 150 minutes each week and perform muscle-strengthening exercises (like strength and resistance training) at least two days a week, the guidelines say.
For children ages 6 to 17, they urge an hour of exercise every day, most of it in the moderate to vigorous range, mixing aerobic exercise (like tennis or swimming), muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities (like running, jumping rope and lifting weights).
When families converge at the end of a busy day, they're often tempted to collapse in front of the TV after dinner, or even worse, retire to their rooms with individual screens. The easiest way to combat institutional inertia, Rimm says, is simply to plan.
“One of the biggest problems is that parents don’t spend enough time organizing their young kids, so video games and technology are just really absorbing kids and keeping them from healthy exercise.
"First, we just had to deal with television, but now it’s much more than that. Particularly, boys tend to become addicted to video games, and it’s becoming a huge problem. It's bad for their brains, and bad for their bodies,” she said.
Parents must take time to organize the family's down time, scheduling physical activities like a bike ride, roller blading or family swim time at the YMCA, Rimm said. Even taking at 15-minute walk together after a meal can have immediate health benefits, such as lowering blood sugar levels (which can help prevent type 2 diabetes) and helping the body digest food more effectively.
Of course, it’s easier in some places than others. For some, the weather can be challenging, particularly in winter; others live in so-called fitness deserts, where a dearth of parks and trails makes it more challenging for families to exercise than those who can converge on a rail trail within minutes.
In cases like these, Eaker said, the parents’ role as leader becomes even more important. “It becomes incumbent on parents to provide those opportunities, to get children to a place where they can play. And believe me, play is aerobic exercise.”
Although vigorous exercise six or seven days a week is the ideal, families who are new to exercise should start out slowly to avoid injury and burnout, and even exercising once a week as a family is enough to bring it closer together, Eaker said.
“In most instances, more is better, and 30-45 minutes minimum is the ideal. Is that practical as a family? No. It’s very difficult for everybody’s schedule. But I believe you can achieve the bonding, the social benefit from doing things as a family, by doing it just one time on the weekend. That takes some of the pressure off,” he said.
Know when it's time to stop
Getting used to exercise wasn’t a problem for Sarah Canney, who, like her husband, was athletic before they got married. (They met on a group hike up Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest point in the Northeastern U.S.)
When the couple started a family, they decided that physical activity would be something "that will build our family identity together, make (our children) feel that they're part of a team."
Two years ago, Canney and her husband, who live in Rochester, N.H., hiked Mount Washington again, this time in the company of a 4-year-old and an almost-2-year-old, with Sarah Canney two months pregnant. At the base, someone said, “You’re not taking them up there, are you?” but the children did great, and the 4-year-old hiked unassisted more than half the way, Canney said.
Parents sometimes underestimate what their children can do physically, she said. “Part of being an active family is making space for your kids to try things out,” while making sure that the activity is fun and safe. It helps to prepare for the occasional meltdown (and, whenever possible, not interfere with naps). “Be strategic,” she said.
Canney, whose children are now 6, 3 and 8 months, is a 33-year-old runner who has given tips on how to train for a 5K with young children on her blog, runfargirl.com (among them: set small goals and don't over-encourage). She doesn’t push her children to run, however, because “I want it to be their choice, and I don’t want them to burn out.”
So far, there’s no sign of that happening: When Canney goes to an indoor track for a workout, her 6-year-old accompanies her and does homework on the bleachers, and then joins her mom in running cool-down laps.
The most important thing for keeping the family engaged — and to keep exercising over the long-term — is to constantly monitor the fun meter. “If there comes a point when nobody’s having fun, then it’s time to stop,” she said.
Rimm also emphasizes the importance of play, which is often what exercise is. In a family, she said, “There has to be time when nobody is rushed and everyone is playing," and exercise provides this.
“It’s extremely important from a social and emotional perspective, too,” Rimm said. “There’s nothing better for dissipating anxiety than exercise. There are a lot of anxious kids out there, and anxious parents, too, and one of the best forms of relaxation is not medication, but exercise.”
Eaker, a runner who recently finished his 38th marathon, said one of his favorite family photographs shows him finishing a fun run holding hands with his daughters, then ages 3 and 5. While they chose other fitness paths — one got into gymnastics, another became a competitive cheerleader — he believes that exercising together as a family made the girls realize that exercise is fun, it’s expected, and needs to be a life-long habit. “Both are in college now, and it stuck,” he said.