Getting all the family fit
Exercising with your children - in any form - has huge benefits for them and for you, writes Tanya Sweeney
If you have young children, it's all too easy to cite the incessant demands of parenting as reason enough not to stay fit. And to be fair, it seems as good an excuse as any: why worry about getting in shape when the hamster wheel of family life is going at full pelt?
Yet there are many reasons to explore the idea of exercising together as a family. One in four children in Ireland is now overweight or obese. While the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI), which is conducted by the National Nutrition Surveillance Centre in UCD, suggests that the levels of overweight and obesity in children in first class appear to be stabilising, this is not observed in children attending DEIS schools (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools), and there is also a marked difference between girls and boys, with more young girls tending to be overweight and obese.
According to Government guidelines, the recommended amount of physical activity for school-age children is at least 60 minutes a day. In the Republic of Ireland, it's been estimated that four out of five children are not meeting the guideline. Where 50pc of Irish children walked to school in 1981, now the figure is around 25pc. And with the threat of TV, gaming and other screen time looming large in almost every Irish household, parents have quite a task on their hands to hit that recommended 60 minutes.
The benefits of physical activity are plentiful: active kids boast better agility, balance and co-ordination, improved self-esteem and mood, and better energy levels and sleep quality.
It's one thing to sign children up to a host of after-school activities, but exercising alongside your kids reprogrammes them to understand what is 'normal' and what's not. And right now, many parents don't recognise the power they have to influence this aspect of their children's lives. It's a habit that could prove invaluable in later life, too.
Researchers in Sweden examined the fitness records of 1.2 million men born between 1950 and 1976, on entry into military service at age 18. They then traced their subsequent progress through life and found that cardiovascular fitness appeared to be predictive of cognition in middle age. The more exercise they had done during adolescence, the more likely they were to be successful professionally.
Neuroscientists believe there are a number of reasons for this. Studies show that doing enough physical activity to improve cardio-respiratory fitness in childhood is directly related to the structure and function of the developing brain, especially regions such as the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, and the pre-frontal cortex, which does not complete its formation until your early 20s.
"There's a strong tendency for childhood exercise to have a positive influence," Ted Garland, professor of biology at the University of California, has said.
"Those who have grown up doing regular exercise are more motivated to get out there and exercise as adults. This could be linked to the effect of exercise on the brain's reward-feedback loops.
"We know that exercise increases the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and, to an extent, serotonin, and that has a kick-back effect on motivation that persists for quite a lot of time."
Lisa Wilkinson, owner of The Elbowroom wellness hub in Stoneybatter, Dublin, is aware of a growing demand for families who want to exercise together. She runs dedicated baby, toddler, child and teen yoga classes, as well as yoga and dance classes for families who want to stay active together.
"You get to do something together, which works really well for working parents," she explains. "You get so sucked into feeding them, clothing them, getting them up in the morning, that it's important to take an hour or two out for the fun stuff. We also do a 'baby jam', where parents can dance around to music with their children."
As mother to Tuilelaith (14) and Seán (eight), she certainly practises what she preaches, too. For much of the week, the family is based at The Elbowroom Escape, a residential wellness facility, in Donard, Co Wicklow. There's a mountain in the family's back garden, and Wilkinson takes full advantage of it.
"I like them to be outside as much as possible and away from the trappings of inside, like screens and PlayStations," she says. "We also run a Forest School weekend at the Escape, and we set off as a family for four or five hours, setting the kids tasks like finding certain things in the forest, or trying to get from one rock to another using a rope. I call it 'disguised exercise', rather than 'let's all do some aerobics now'."
Mindful of creating lasting healthy habits for her children, Wilkinson is keen to maintain a sense of balance.
"Being on a diet, for example, is something I've never done," she says. "They can see me having a healthy ongoing relationship with food, and the same goes for exercise. I'm not necessarily fanatical about the gym, but when I'm out walking, it's nice if they can come along.
"There might be a resistance, and you get the sulkiness, but they soon spring into life. You're simply leading by example, which is parenting in a nutshell."
Galway-based personal trainer Pat Divilly has observed in his clients that young children like to mimic the activities of their parents, opening the gateway to an active lifestyle as adults.
"I try to make my workouts fun so that kids looking in are intrigued," he says. "I often see kids on the sidelines, imitating the stuff that they see."
Mention the idea of '60 minutes' exercise to parents, and reaching it seems like a daunting task. Again, Divilly is a fan of making fitness seem more like a fun way of bonding.
"I like the idea of creating a family 'date night'," he suggests. "Have a person in the family make a suggestion about a special activity they want to do occasionally. It can be anything from football to paintballing, or kayaking or go-karting. It's a great way for the family to share passions and ideas with each other. But it doesn't have to be something that costs, either. There are plenty of free activities out there.
"One of the big mistakes we make is having a picture in our head about what exercise looks like. There's no need to force your kids, or yourself, into a gym or a bootcamp. The trick is to keep it simple and don't overcomplicate it. You don't need an intricate strength and training programme - you just need movement and fun."
Buddying up with family is also known to improve our chances of keeping fit in the longer term.
"One of the things I prompt people with is that it's easy to fail privately," says Divilly. "Parents in particular struggle with staying consistent. But we are all busy and have the same 24 hours in the day. So many clients will tell me they're so busy, sometimes too busy to exercise, but that's just the story you're telling yourself - and you'll see it trickle down the generations.
"When parents start to think about how this might impact their kids forever, it really makes a huge difference," he concludes. They start to think, 'This isn't really for me; it's for my kids.' It may seem like exercise just for the sake of it, but I've seen first-hand how important exercise is for the mental health of the whole family."
‘You make it an adventure’
Kilbarrack-based Fia Moore, who works in tourism, and her husband, Ronan, who works in IT, are mindful of making activities fun for their children, Maia (14) and Billy (10).
"Exercising together is very important," says Swedish-born Fia. "We work full time, so it's vital to do things on the weekends as a family."
Fia has always been active, and she is determined to set a good example of activity as early as possible.
"I took up long-distance running after the second was born, and soon I got them all running," she explains. "Since they were toddlers, we have taken them hiking. At weekends, I wouldn't do the trip to Tayto Park; I'd rather take them for a hike in the Wicklow Mountains. Being from Sweden originally, I love the great outdoors."
Getting the children involved, Fia found, was a perfect way of ensuring that she hit her own fitness quotient.
"I signed my husband up to do the Dublin Marathon as a Christmas present, and it can be logistically difficult when both of us are training. But when we had to do a 20-mile run, the kids came along on their bikes."
Occasionally, Fia meets the odd bout of resistance from her children. Yet she has found a canny way to make exercising with the family not feel like, well, exercise.
"You have to make it an adventure," she says. "We sometimes go geocaching [participants use a GPS system to hike and seek containers, or 'caches', hidden all over the world]. We go for a night-time hike with our head torches on, then light a fire on the beach, cook a little food and have hot chocolate.
"It's a lot better than just dropping your kids off to their own activities. Ultimately, kids just want to spend time with you.
"Maia does a lot of exercise herself and trains six hours a week with the Raheny Shamrocks [a running club]. There are a couple of years where I don't want to leave her behind on her own doing nothing, so when it comes to getting out and doing exercise on weekends, she doesn't have a choice. She's started to grumble a little bit about it, but once she's along, she really enjoys it.
"Besides, she knows that this is just what we do on the weekends. While you're going on long walks with your kids, you can be out for four hours, and you get very close. You have to have the conversations that you might otherwise have missed.
"As a family we have made a lot of lovely memories together."
For more information on how to get more active with your family and to find out what activities are available near you, see Physical Activity section on gov.ie/healthyireland
• PARENTS can play a really important role in encouraging their kids to eat well and to exercise more.
• The START campaign, developed by the Department of Health, Safefood and the HSE, is a new public awareness campaign which aims to support parents and carers of children to make small changes in their daily lives which will help them to a healthier life, including maintaining a healthy weight.
• The campaign encourages parents to act as role models for their children.
• HERE ARE SOME SIMPLE STEPS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY CAN TAKE:
› Minimise intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar
› Establish water and milk as routine drinks
› Advocate appropriate child-size portions
› Increase physical activity levels
› Limit screen time
› Increase sleep time For more information, see makeastart.ie