Easy Ways Families Can Unplug, Get Up, and Get Going

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

When I walk in, I turn on the lights and greet the class. Often, I give them grief about being on their phones and ignoring one another. They give me a knowing look, mumble some good mornings, and politely put their phones away when class begins. They are officially unplugged for the 50-minute class. We take a set of physio-balls out of the closet and use them instead of chairs — this helps get students moving literally and figuratively. Slowly the conversation picks up, just long enough to fill the first few minutes of class with small talk. Yet the small talk isn’t small at all — it’s big — as this is when we learn more about each other and make important connections.

In the midst of our usual pre-class small talk, I throw out the topic for this article to my motor development students: How can we get kids whose schedules are not already dominated by youth sports to be more active — especially in light of technology trends? After a brief pause, one of the athletes in class says, “I hate to tell you this, but you don’t stand a chance.” The class laughs. It’s the end of the semester and they all know me pretty well by now. They know how I feel about being active. And they know that they are not getting off this easy.

The student does have a point — the solution to this problem is not easy. But, I need some answers. In fact, the rest of America needs some answers in a hurry, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.” The clock is ticking.

My students can easily rattle off more facts and figures about childhood obesity, dropout rates in youth sports, mediocre nutrition, excessive screen time, and lack of lifetime fitness. As well they should, because I am teaching a class full of future physical therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers, physical educators, physicians assistants, and nurses. We talk shop about what can be done professionally in physical education, health education, health care, youth sports, recess, and more. But, interestingly, the consensus across the class is that regardless of what professionals do to support children, it comes down to parenting.

My college students are quick to tell me that technology has dominated only half of their young lives. They describe their childhood as more physically active than today’s kids. This bothers them. They describe the transition in their lives when smart phones became more prevalent, the internet expanded, and video games gained popularity. They recognize the correlation between the increase in technology and the decrease in physical activity. To keep the conversation on point, I share a few facts with them from the President’s Council of Fitness, Sports and Nutrition:

* Only 1 in 3 children are physically active every day.

* More than 80% of adolescents do not do enough aerobic physical activity.

* 28% of Americans (80 million people) aged 5 and older are physically inactive.

* Children now spend more than 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen (e.g., TV, videogames, computer).

Nearly one-third of high school students play video or computer games for 3 or more hours on an average school day. (You can read more at fitness.gov/resource-center/facts-and-statistics/)

In light of this disturbing data, the reality of the problem is clear, and we begin to talk solutions. Our once quiet, dark classroom is lively with discussion and debate (maybe I do stand a chance). Repeatedly, the students return to the same point: Future professionals will be there for guidance, but the responsibility starts at home.

Family matters

Learning to be physically active is like any other behavior: Children learn by observing their parents and other influential people in their lives. Parents are our first and often best role models. But, unfortunately in today’s world, many parents are not doing an effective job of encouraging or modeling physical activity for children, especially as children reach their high school years.

The 2010 National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study found that “the prevalence of adults who encourage children in their household daily to be physically active is low and decreases across grade levels in high school. Further, the prevalence of adults who actually participate in physical activity or play sports with children in their household on a daily basis is less than 10% and tends to be higher for boys than for girls.”

I often ask my college students if they have active parents and how their home environment influenced their motor development. As anticipated, my students are usually a reflection of their parents in their physical activity interests. The college students with more active parents have become more active young adults. The foundation for lifetime fitness is built in childhood.

To lay the groundwork in your own family:

1. Sign your children up for physical activities.

2.  Encourage your children to be physically active on their own.

3.  Be physically active with your children.

Sign your children up for physical activities

Traditional sports like soccer, baseball, and basketball are the most common starting point. Experiment with a range of sports to see if any are a good fit for your children. Consider both team and individual sports, and different sports in different seasons as variety is great for fitness and fun.

The unfortunate part of traditional sports is that most children drop out by the time they enter high school. In fact, an estimated 40% of high school students do not play any organized sports, in or out of school. Unless your child is varsity material, a Plan B may be in order. This is where the growing trend toward non-traditional (and often lifetime) sports comes in. Local parks and recreation departments, YMCAs, and other private settings offer classes or lessons in many nontraditional sports and fitness activities. Be sure to ask about free trials, other beginner opportunities, and family/group discounts.

Non-traditional forms of recreation include:

* Biking

* Crew

* Crossfit

* Golf

* Group exercise classes (e.g., barre, kickboxing, boot camp, Zumba)

* Parkour (obstacle courses)

* Rock climbing

* Running

* Skateboarding

* Strength and conditioning

* Swimming

* Yoga

* Virtual reality video games (e.g., Wii fit)

* Winter sports (skiing, snowshoeing, etc.)

Consider signing your child up with a friend. Research and practical experience confirm that children, especially adolescents, are more likely to feel comfortable trying something new if they are with a friend. Furthermore, when a peer group is involved in a physical activity together, there is greater likelihood that the participants will remain committed. Get a group of your children’s friends together and try something new!

Encourage your children to be physically active on their own

While children don’t have to be in a lesson or on a team to be active, some organization and motivation are needed. Discuss expectations with children to be sure they understand the importance of being physically active. Help them to buy into the idea of being active on a daily basis, and then create a routine full of options and stick to it.

Measurement and motivation

Some children are motivated by measuring and tracking their exercise, which is helpful when setting fitness goals. Integrate technology in a positive way with one of the many apps designed to record physical activity and track progress, or use a simple pedometer or a more sophisticated device like a Fitbit to track steps, miles, and active minutes. Most cell phones can be used as pedometers, although I don’t recommend wearing cell phones. A common goal for many adults is 10,000 steps a day; children should be able to exceed 10,000 steps daily.

My children have inexpensive pedometers ($15) and enjoy tracking their steps and being competitive about their milestones. They know they get more steps on weekends, or school days when they have physical education. This self-awareness about movement patterns is a valuable life skill. Helping your children record their accumulated exercise (in steps, miles, or minutes) on paper in a journal or on a calendar can be a powerful motivator. In my family, we keep a calendar up where we track our fitness progress. We are also competitive about our steps per day. It can be fun to challenge family and friends to do more steps each day. Figure out what motivates your children and build on it.

Independent physical activities include:

Dog walking: Another effective way to accumulate steps on a regular basis is by walking the family dog. Dogs are helpful for creating a positive walking routine — and of course provide some good company! If you don’t have a dog, perhaps your neighbor who does would enjoy a break!

FitDeck: Circuit train at home using these exercise playing cards. Exercises require only body resistance (no equipment). There are other themed sets, in addition to FitDeck Jr. for children.

Exercise videos: Go to YouTube or your cable equivalent of “On Demand” for free exercise videos. Try Zumba, yoga, and more from home for free. All you need is room to sweat!

DeskCycles: If children must use a device, pedal while they play! In a previous article (Move More, Learn More in Active Classrooms), I highlighted use of DeskCycles in the classroom, but they are versatile for home use as well.

Exercise equipment: Invest in some simple home exercise equipment. Equipment often comes with diagrams of sample exercises to get started with. Some of my favorite items that are practical and store easily are steps, resistance bands, physio-balls, and free weights.

Create an incentive plan to increase physical activity and decrease sedentary behavior. For instance, children can accumulate steps, miles, or active minutes to earn screen time or another reward. Work with your children to create a tradeoff that incorporates some physical activity before a desired sedentary activity, like television or video games. I try not to give my kids something for nothing! I like for them to earn their rewards, including screen time.

My students also suggested a few screen time rules that they either grew up with or use themselves:

* Create a point system for children to accumulate exercise to earn screen time minutes. Earn minutes with movement.

* Set technology time limits, which need to be followed by a predetermined amount of physical activity before using a device again.

* Put phones in airplane mode during exercise to avoid distracting messages while still listening to music.

* Set a bedtime for devices/technology use in order to conclude the day with an unplugged activity, such as reading, conversation, or exercise.

Be physically active with your children

While signing children up for activities and encouraging independent physical activity at home is great, being active together is even better. Find some activities you and your children enjoy together. Exercise doesn’t have to be torture. Research tells us that people are far more likely to stick with forms of exercise they like to do. Sixty minutes of daily physical activity is recommended for children, but even 30 minutes a day can make a difference in your family’s health and well-being. Accumulating exercise in 10-minute shifts throughout the day is valuable, as well. Remember that investing in your children’s healthy habits now can have lasting effects into adulthood.

Go outside

There are numerous health benefits associated with being outside. Try to select activities that can be done outside, even during our New England winters. Skip the treadmills and hit the pavement. The most common form of exercise is walking. One of the most significant benefits of walking with your family is walking and talking. Similar to the small talk with which I often start my classes, walking together is a great chance to chat. Create an after-dinner walking routine. Just leave the dishes in the sink and go! The mess will still be waiting for you when you get back — and you just might feel a little more like tackling it after a brisk walk. My children like to take their flashlights outside during an evening walk, which makes it even more fun (or at least better than doing dishes).

Another option is a before school/work walking routine. An early morning walk jumpstarts the body and brain, setting your family up for a more successful day. As few as 12% of American children walk or ride their bikes to school today. According to the National Physical Activity Plan (2016), “children who travel to school by active means accumulate more physical activity and have increased physical fitness.” For those of us who live in communities with neighborhood schools, this is an excellent way to get some movement in each day. We walk or bike to school year-round and our children really enjoy their morning routine.

The key word here is “routine.” Create an exercise pattern that works for your family. For example, a friend of ours does a weekly walk with each of his children individually. What I especially like about this is it allows for valuable one-on-one time with each child. And whatever you do, leave the gadgets behind unless they are only playing your pump up tunes! My kids like to make play lists to listen to while we walk or jog together. Sometimes we end up singing instead of chatting. Be glad you’re not our neighbors!

Go somewhere

Sometimes a change of scenery can keep exercise engaging and add variety. There are so many great fitness-related destinations including parks, hiking trails, bike trails, tennis courts, driving ranges, and, of course, the gym. Introducing adolescents to a local fitness center can leave a strong impression. I still fondly remember when my dad taught me how to use exercise equipment at the gym when I was in middle school. The American College of Sports Medicine supports strength and conditioning for children and adolescents, as well as aerobic exercise. The key is proper technique and safety. At home, we have a series of small free weights that my young children have learned to use in a few simple upper body exercises. I emphasize form and give frequent feedback. We have a mirror in our exercise space so the kids can see themselves in action and make adjustments. As soon as they are old enough, I am sure we’ll take them to the gym to enjoy the atmosphere and options. A summary of recommendations can be found here.

Get going

You don’t need to be a star athlete yourself to make family fitness happen. Kicking a ball around the yard or park with your kids, having a dance party in your kitchen as you put away the dishes, or challenging them to a who-can-do-the-most pushups contest (proper form trumps all!) are activities anyone can do. Don’t be deterred if you’ve never played on a team or run a marathon. Your children will love whatever fitness activity you choose to do together.

My goal is for parents at every fitness level to feel empowered to teach their kids to get up, unplug, and get going. Better yet, parents will join their children and make physical activity a family affair. Being more physically active has countless physical, cognitive, and social benefits, any combination of which can make your family happier and healthier.

Someday, when our children are the ones sitting in college classrooms, let’s hope they are the students who can effectively unplug and engage with their peers and professors. Let’s hope they become the generation to reduce obesity and sedentary lifestyles and get going. Despite the odds, I think we stand a chance.

Dr. Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is an associate professor in the Movement Science department at Westfield State University, teaching motor development, exercise science, and other sport-related courses. She is the mother of four boys and lives with her family in Longmeadow. Writer Paula Welch contributed to this story.