We all know at least one of these families: they’re superfit, they eat healthfully, they stay active together and their go-to dessert is fresh fruit. On the one hand, you would love to channel their mojo, but on the other, you can’t really fathom a kale-only household.
The truth is, it’s easier than you may think to step up your family’s healthy active-living game. That’s why we teamed up with the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) to learn from a few health experts the tips and tricks of fit families that you can borrow to keep your own brood in top form. Think tiny tweaks to what you’re already doing, not complete habit overhauls — we promise. Because “you don’t have to make drastic changes to be healthy,” says Dr. Rachel Goldman, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Bellevue Center for Obesity & Weight Management.
"Try one small change at a time,” Goldman advises. “When you see [that] what you’re doing is working, it will be even more motivation.”
1. They Get Outside And Play Together
One of the very best ways to get in shape — at any age — is to get moving. “Ideally that means, for children, some kind of physical activity every day, and for adults, a minimum of four days a week,” clinical psychologist Steve Orma says. We’re not talking signing up for half marathons here; it could be a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood. These days, there are so many cool things to do on a screen, indoors, so it’s important for parents to encourage kids to set aside devices and get outside, setting a good example with their own participation. When you increase the family activity level with a trip to the beach, a hike or a bike ride, not only are you getting physical exercise, which is key for good overall health, Orma says, but the family also gets more time together to bond.
2. They Have No-Phone Zones
“There have to be times during the day when the family is together, when no technology is allowed,” says Dr. Jennifer Caudle, board-certified family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic medicine in Stratford, N.J. “No iPads, no iPods, no phones, texting, tweeting — none of that.” She suggests that families come up with a plan that outlines times and spaces where screens are off-limits, such as at dinner table, in the bedroom and during designated homework time. Other families, Caudle says, have a designated charging station in the house where family members keep their devices overnight, so when they head to bed they’re not tempted to scroll through their Facebook feeds.
3. They Make Meal Prep A Fun Family Activity
Invite your kids to tackle dinner this week. No, really! They’ll need some guidance, but having children participate in meal prep and be a part of the cooking process is a great way to promote healthy eating habits, says Caudle. “Take them to the grocery store and help them learn to read labels. Choose a recipe together and then say, ‘Let’s get your ingredients; are we going to do this?’” Getting kids more involved in all aspects of food shopping, prep and cooking will likely make them more interested in learning about smart, healthful food choices.
Goldman adds that, “The goal for parents is, as the role models, to find ways to make healthy eating fun, not a chore.”
4. They Organize Their Schedules Around Good Health
Developing a good practice into a good habit is just a matter of making the behavior routine. To keep your family on the track toward healthy living, try getting a calendar and putting it in a place where everyone in the family can see. Then use it: Schedule the night the kids are in charge of making dinner. Add the once-a-month family bike ride to the park or the weekly driveway basketball game.
“The idea is to make sure these things aren’t a one-and-done type situation,” Caudle says. “Get it on the calendar so it becomes a part of everyday life.”
Goldman agrees. “Research shows that the healthiest people have more or less the same routine every day,” she says. “The routine of a healthy family should include good hydration, exercising and eating healthy every day.”
5. They Rethink Snacktime
If members of your family are like many of us who walk into the house, look at a fully stocked refrigerator and exclaim, “There’s nothing to eat!” look for ways to make healthy choices easier and within reach after a long day at work or school. Greensboro, N.C.-based dietician Rima Kleiner suggests rejiggering your fridge or pantry. Keep within easy reach snacks such as veggies and hummus, almonds and fruit; when you and the kids are low on energy after a full day, it’ll be easy to grab the cut-up carrots and celery or an apple from a bowl on the kitchen table.
6. They Communicate
Almost all experts suggest families eat meals together. “Not only is it about quality time,” Caudle says, “but also it’s about talking and discussing and sharing. It’s an opportunity for a family to discuss their day and what’s going on in each of their lives.” Mental health, sleep, experiences at school and how they’re interacting with others are so closely linked, and if something is bothering or troubling a child, it will affect their overall well-being.
Orma suggests weekly check-ins, either as a whole family or one-on-one between parent and kid. “Put it on the schedule,” he says. “It might be two nights a week, at this time, we sit down and we talk. It’s basically to say, ‘How’s everything going?’; ‘Is anything going on at school that I can help you with?’; or simply, ‘I support you and I’m here for you.’”
7. They Wind Down Together At The End Of The Day
The whole household (parents, too!) should be winding down during the hour or so before bedtime, Orma says. Read together or individually, or play a game (after homework is finished). This should be a time of the day away from TV and electronics, when the family is spending time relaxing and interacting, he says. This sets up everyone for a good night’s sleep, so all will be well rested and feeling strong and healthy in the morning.
8. They Know How To Keep Exercise Fun
Not only do healthy families get outside and play together (see #1, above), they know staying active is a lifelong habit — and routines can become dull after a while. Take it from mother, health advocate and former Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller; to those who are stuck in an exercise rut, Miller recommends they “try something else!” Families should consider yoga, running or high-intensity interval training in order to mix things up, she says in a HWCF blog post. “Find something you enjoy and you will look forward to working out more.”
The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation is a broad-based, not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help reduce obesity, especially childhood obesity, by encouraging positive and permanent lifestyle changes among school-aged children and their families. Learn more at HealthyWeightCommit.org.