It’s easy to let exercise slide when you have kids. There are so many other things to do, after all — and who has the energy?
Well, kids do. My daughters, ages 9 and 5, love to run around at breakneck speed, jump on the furniture, and generally wear me out. But rather than taming them entirely, I’ve found I can focus their energy on activities that are good for them and me. Some fun ways to make exercise not feel like exercise:
Play your favorites
One of the simplest ways to get moving with your kids is to adapt traditional games to their skills. Caroline Rudnick and her husband, Bruce, of Wichita, Kansas, play “bat-less”
baseball in order to include 2-year-old Madeline and her older brother, William, 4. “I throw the ball to Bruce and then he chases the kids around the bases,” Rudnick says. “We can all play for hours.”
Catherine Bjork’s family plays indoor volleyball (with a beach ball) in their family room, using the sofa as the net. “Our winters are long and harsh, so we’ve had to be creative with indoor activities,” says the Sleepy Hollow, Illinois, mom of 9-year-old Abbey and 6-year-old Sammy.
Other ways to adapt ordinary games to space, age, and ability:
Play “tennis” with balloons and badminton rackets. Or make rackets out of sturdy paper plates taped to wooden spoons.
Lower the “hoops.” For a spin on basketball, place large buckets or trash cans at opposite ends of a room or the yard, and race to see who can toss the ball in first. (Go for lightweight foam or beach balls instead of regular basketballs.)
Try solo soccer. Take turns dribbling the ball while running across the yard. Count your kicks as you go, then challenge your child to beat your record. Give a smaller kid (who might have a harder time beating you) a specific challenge, like seeing how far he can get with a certain number of kicks.
Barbara Rowley wrote “Fun in a Pinch” for the February issue.
Let the games grow with your child
When my oldest daughter was only 18 months old, she began running a circular path around the living room nearly every evening. Soon we added some twists to her route: We gave her coins to toss in a kitchen pan as she ran, and we placed cushions in the way for her to jump over.
Taking into account your child’s specific developmental abilities can inspire all sorts of new activities. Some ideas:
Make up silly relays. Toddlers are naturals for these — and the more active the relay, the better. Set yours off to scoop one cup of water from an outdoor bucket, then run and dump it in another. He’ll also get to indulge his love of filling and pouring. A preschooler, on the other hand, will have more fun with the same relay if you tap into his passion for pretend play: Tell him he’s a fireman as he runs back and forth, scooping and pouring.
Play follow-the-leader. Get in the game by making a musical circuit around the house: Ring a bell at one stop, beat a drum at the next, and blow a horn at the last; repeat until everyone’s worn out.
Get creative. Hold a hula hoop for your child to toss a ball through, see how far you each can roll one on its side, hop from the inside of one to the inside of the other, or use it the old-fashioned way — around your hips. Try stretching out a jump rope to limbo under or arranging a few of them to create an obstacle course for hopping.
Encourage him to show off. Your preschooler will happily count how many times he can hop on one foot, and he’ll love to give you goofy challenges, too. You can even create your own Family Book of World Records to keep track of everyone’s accomplishments.
Step up to the plate
Seeing you take fitness seriously is likely to boost your kid’s interest in exercise, now and in the future. Gina Dudley and her husband love to run together, but when their daughters were 6, 4, and 2, the Bloomfield, New Jersey, parents couldn’t always snag a sitter. Their solution: Running laps on a local track while the girls played their own run-around games in the center. Other family workouts:
Run or walk fast alongside a toddler or preschooler who has learned to ride a bike or tricycle.
Pop in a yoga or workout video. Your baby or toddler can bop around while you work up a sweat.
Let your preschooler be your trainer. He can count your crunches, time how long you’re on the treadmill, and judge whether you should stretch just a little further.
Send the right message
In my family, nobody considers our daily walks around the neighborhood exercise. Sometimes we set out to find signs of spring or different-colored leaves, or to collect sticks. But never to “exercise.” Walking is simply a regular family activity, and exercise is what we get when we do it.
If you treat exercise as a “treat,” you teach your kids that it’s fun. “I always make the reward for being active more activity,” says Alexandra Powe-Allred of Midlothian, Texas. “We might go for a hike, and when they get tired I’ll just tell them, ‘Okay, when we find one more thing, then we can go swimming.'” Other ways to send the right fitness message to your kids:
Don’t limit yourself to gyms and playing fields. Leslie Garrison of Virginia Beach, likes to take her daughter, Chloe, to not-so-crowded malls where the 3-year-old can run and she can walk briskly beside her without disturbing anyone. Wide-aisle superstores (especially on less-busy days) also do the trick and allow Garrison to get in some shopping at the same time.
Exercise like a kid. Bjork and her husband, Jay, shove both of their family room couches together, facing each other, to form a “trampoline pit.” While they spot, their kids dive into the middle and jump and play.
Make working out something to look forward to. By exercising together, you’re giving your kids more than a healthy start: You’re giving them time with you. “My kids will do just about anything if we’re out there doing it with them,” says Susan Swaringen, a mom of 5-year-old twins in Glenview, Illinois.
The bottom line is that exercising as a family means you’ll all start to associate working out with having a good time. Kids of any age love the attention they get when Mom and Dad join in their physical fun — and doesn’t a game of tag with your preschooler sound a lot more appealing than 50 crunches by yourself? Now, round up the gang and get sweaty.