When it comes to health, we often think in individual terms: my weight loss, my child’s nutrition, my husband’s cholesterol. But a powerful dynamic is created when the whole family makes a healthy lifestyle a priority. That’s what Sarah Otto of Glens Falls, New York, found soon after giving birth to her daughter, Emma, five months ago.
“I started taking the baby on walks in a stroller or infant carrier to get back in shape and shed some weight,” she says. “I wanted company, so my husband came along when he got home from work, and on weekends. It turned into real quality time for us, a chance to reflect on the amazing gift we’d just been given.”
Healthy living can have a wonderful impact on family life. It’s well established that regular physical activity has mood-boosting effects for both kids and grown-ups. And every mom knows that when her child gets plenty of playground time, eats right, and sleeps long enough, he’s likely to be calmer and better-behaved than if he spent most of his time in front of the tube with a bag of chips. Family time is fun, of course, but it also can make a child feel better about himself. “Parents and kids who take good care of themselves have more patience, compassion, humor, resilience, and energy,” says Debra Gill, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Short Hills, New Jersey. “They’re less stressed and tired, which translates into acting nicer and getting along better.”
The new Dietary Guidelines make it clear that about an hour a day of moderate physical activity is a good goal for both adults and kids. But it needn’t be structured to create benefits both physical and emotional. “It’s while you play catch or walk the dog with your child that you really bond with him,” says Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of research and education at Sesame Workshop, which debuts its “Healthy Habits for Life” initiative on Sesame Street this month.
The best way to instill healthy habits in your child is to get a few yourself. You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk! That’s especially true of moms, research shows. If you don’t eat breakfast, chances are your kid won’t either, even after she grows up. And if you’re overweight, it’s likely that your child will be, too.
Jill Golightly, of Noblesville, Indiana, started eating better even before her daughter, Holly, now 2, was born. “My husband and I used to eat zero vegetables and a lot of convenience foods,” she says. “Now we eat balanced meals, and we’ve cut out a lot of carbs and sugars. It’s made a real difference to us — my husband and I lost a combined seventy pounds over the last year! And we don’t eat in front of the TV anymore — we actually all sit down at the dinner table together.”
Andrea Pollack, mom of Kaela, 3, in Oak Hill, Virginia, and her husband Dan are creating a healthy household by getting moving. “We often hike with Kaela on weekends. She walks until she gets tired, then rides in the backpack. We might take an abbreviated route, go more slowly, and rest more often, but we’re out there together.” She’s also proud that her daughter sees her hockey-playing father as a role model. “She loves to try on his stinky hockey gloves and says she wants to be a hockey player when she grows up.”
Realizing you’re a role model is often an inspiration to get fitter yourself, says Gill. “It’s a great motivator.”
New York City freelancer Amy Barr, her husband, and their two sons, 14 and 12, like to hike and ski together.
Ready, set, go!
The two most powerful factors in a lasting lifestyle change are a supportive environment and social network, say experts. That means working together to create an atmosphere that’s healthy for everyone in the family. “If you’re all trying to make healthier choices, you won’t have one family member’s favorite junk foods in plain sight and easy reach,” says Gill. To get ready to change:
Boost your motivation by talking about the benefits you expect to gain from living healthfully, such as having more energy, enjoying family time outdoors, sleeping better. Even preschoolers can chime in.
Consider barriers that have kept you from being healthy in the past and figure out ways to get around them. “Plan how a different lifestyle could work, before you start to act on the changes,” says Gill. If schedules are a road block, for example, a simple discussion may reveal a reasonable solution. And if your child’s superpremium ice cream is a big temptation for you, switching to low-fat versions might help everyone.
Time constraints are always a factor. The easiest way to get around them is to integrate your interests and activities. Gill has found that when parents of young children eat the same healthy foods they prepare for their kids and work in their own exercise while the kids are running around, their days feel less crazed. “Instead of just suffering through your kid’s video for the 100th time, dance along!” she says.
Take it one step at a time: Agree on some basic changes for the family that can be made immediately and others you might aim for in the future. Small successes build everyone’s confidence.
It can be as simple as signing everyone up at the gym. “We recently bought a family membership to the YMCA and that has made a world of difference in our house,” says Anna Collett, a mom of four children under the age of 7 in Arlington, Texas. Her husband plays basketball, she does aqua aerobics, and the kids “romp in the playroom or swim with us,” she says. “It takes organization to get us all there, but it’s worth it because we all love going.”
Bring it outside. “It’s important for developmental reasons for kids to play outdoors,” says Barbara Moore, Ph.D., president of Shape Up America, and a contributor to the Institute of Medicine’s report Preventing Childhood Obesity. “You just can’t get those large muscle groups moving enough inside a living room.”
Since kids love to move around, what we most need to do is to follow their lead, says Bud Martin, an Atlanta-based educator specializing in health promotion: “Skipping, bending, balancing, climbing trees, and jumping on rocks are all integral to kids learning to use their bodies the best way they can.”
Stress and stress relief
Family life is a paradox: It can be the greatest source of stress in your life and it can also be your greatest source of stress relief. The more your family life makes healthier habits easy, the more likely it will feel like a haven — for everyone. Before she had a baby, Carmen Bilderback of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, says she was “one of those people who literally could go all day without eating and not realize it.” Then she became pregnant with Alivia, now 10 months old. “I started to eat better when I was pregnant — lots more vegetables and fruit, more protein foods, and more water — and it just kind of stuck. Now I want to make sure Alivia eats regularly, and when she eats, I eat, too. I really believe in a family sitting down to dinner, so I’ve had to slow down a little. She’s made me stop, enjoy things, and pay more attention to myself along with her. I’m still busy, but I’m a lot less stressed out now.”