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Make Fitness a Family Tradition

Children model the behavior they see at home. Set a good example by making exercise a family activity.

My 4-year-old granddaughter, Isabelle, visits on weekends several times a year. Because I am fortunate enough to live on three hilly acres in rural northern California, we need only step outdoors to find ourselves in the woods. We play hide-and-seek among the trees, look for bird and squirrel nests high in the pines and walk on trails. A box of colored chalk turns our driveway into an enormous palette. We draw scenery and then string train cars together down the asphalt canvas. Or maybe we draw a hopscotch board and test our skills. Or maybe we jump rope.

See also: The healing powers of dance. 

The demands on my imagination and energy are not so great that I can't keep the two of us fully occupied during a weekend. But what would I do if I were a young mother? How would I work fitness into our family's lifestyle? I asked my friend, Elisa Parker, who is the young mother of two girls — Maya, age 3, and Peyton, age 1.

Elisa's ideas can help even in households where the parents work full time, if you make a point to use at least some of your parenting hours enjoying exercise with your wee ones. Here's what Elisa suggests:

·        The Four-Season Fitness Plan: Develop a fitness routine that coincides with the seasons. Pools and parks in summer, sledding and snowmen in winter, puddle stomping in the rain. Plan a ladybug picnic, take nature walks and explore what's in season — wildflowers, bugs, rocks, salamanders or fall colors.

A Mother and her two children jump rope.

Getty Images

·        Mommy-and-Me Time: Participate in fitness activities together. Many gyms and community centers offer parent-child classes such as tumbling, dance and yoga, even for infants.

·        Two Wheels Are Better Than One: Bike seats, extensions and trailers make family bike rides easy. One of our favorite family activities includes riding our bikes along the Truckee River to Lake Tahoe for lunch on the beach.

·        Walk Off the Weight: Join or start a walking group. Walking is particularly suited for moms with young children. Strollers and baby carriers, aside from their obvious utility, add a little weight to your load, giving you more calorie burn per step. Jogging strollers aren't just for jogging; many are suitable for off-road trails too. All you need is one other person to start your own group!

·        Jump Into Action: The latest rave for kids and parents is inflatable bouncy "houses" (what we used to call moon bounces when I was younger). Warehouses transform into inflatable playgrounds. You can rent these for a day (or longer) and, while they're not always cheap, they can be affordable if you get a group of parents to pitch in — for example, for a group birthday party for numerous kids.

·        Parent Versus Wild: Just because you're a parent doesn't mean you can't enjoy your favorite outdoor activities. True, you must be patient, and your backpacking treks might need to be scaled down from a six-mile hike to a one-mile adventure. But you can adapt your activities to work with your entire family. For example, cross-country skiers can pull their young children on a customized sled, and gear junkies can find anything from baby backpacks to all-terrain strollers. Friends and I are taking a family backpacking trip this summer — with llamas to carry some of the weight!

·        Think Outside the Box: In our house, the television is off during the day. We encourage play and outdoor activities. Think about ways to be a model of fitness and health for your children.

·        How Does Your Garden Grow? We planted our first vegetable garden with the kids last summer. Planting and maintaining the garden was good exercise, and the kids took part in creating something. Encourage the kids to develop their own section of the garden. Visit a farmers market to encourage healthy eating and support local growers.

·        Dance as if No One Is Watching: What better excuse to act silly and move to music than to dance with your children? My daughters and I love moving together at our parent-child music class. It's often more aerobic than my Jazzercise class! Our family also attends music festivals appropriate for children during the summer and enjoys dancing the night away — creating memories we will never forget.

Elisa's suggestions will be great to review when I run out of ideas about what to play next with Isabelle. If you have more suggestions, I'd like to hear them.

Carole Carson, author of From Fat to Fit: Turn Yourself into a Weapon of Mass Reduction, serves as the coach for the AARP Fat to Fit online community.