Family Fitness – How and Why to Get Moving Together
by Catherine Morris | February 1, 2021, updated about 1 month ago
For personal trainer Jordan McWhirter being active isn't just a job, it's a family tradition.
An avid golfer, McWhirter credits his dad with getting him out on the green and giving him an early love of the game. Now a father himself, he's eager to turn his two year old into a golfer… just as soon as she's old enough to hold a club.
Make movement fun for your kids and you'll give them a gift that lasts a lifetime. So any parents out there considering fitness-themed New Year's Resolutions, we have a suggestion—why not get the whole family onboard?
Why Fit Families Have the Right Idea
It's snowing outside, your teenager is comatose on the couch, your toddler is pitching a fit, and your eldest is glued to her phone, browsing social media. Sometimes wrangling the whole family for even 10 minutes of movement feels more trouble than it's worth.
Trust us, it is worth it. There's loads of reasons to drag the kids off the sofa and their screens, and the sooner you start, the better.
1. Fit Parents = Fit Kids
Over 80 percent of adolescents, aged 11 to 17, don't get enough exercise, according to the World Health Organisation, and that has a huge impact on their mental and physical wellbeing well into adulthood. One way to ensure your child doesn't become a lazy teen is to start them young. Children who get the fit bug early tend to grow into active adults, building a healthy habit that they'll benefit from their whole lives.
McWhirter, who has almost two decades experience in fitness and runs health coaching service Real Fitness for Real People, says kids are born athletes so it's important to nurture that inbuilt love of movement from the very start. “We do not have to push young kids into being active, they naturally gravitate to that. We need to not hold them back, and just encourage them.”
He adds that the best form of encouragement is participation, saying—“One thing I would love to see more is for parents to take part in an activity with their kids. I see kids at football games, and the parents are on the sidelines chatting. That's fine, but getting in there and being active with your kid is really important and you don't have to be great at it. They are just excited that you're doing something with them.”
2. The Fun Factor
Of course we're not saying you should bark military-style drills at your kid as they puff around the park. That will almost certainly prove counterproductive as they'll learn to hate it (and you!). Instead, make movement fun. Make it really fun and he might even choose it over gaming or scrolling. #ParentWin!
Through play, not punishment, you can help your child develop a healthy relationship with exercise. As they move into adulthood, with all its associated obligations, they'll make time to move because it's fun, they enjoy it, and they love how it makes them feel. Fun will always be a better motivator than guilt or shame.
Fun movement is good for the adults in the family too—we tend to push play aside as we get older, too burdened by responsibilities to run and jump around just for the sheer joy of it—but play is equally important for grown-up bodies and brains as a way of releasing stress, using unfamiliar muscles and increasing stamina.
“Too often adults get concerned with the aesthetics or the health side of working out and forget that activity can be fun. That is the beauty of getting kids involved. I took my daughter tobogganing recently, I hadn't been tobogganing in more than 20 years, and it was great!”
3. Building Better Brains
Beyond the physical benefits kids get from exercise, there are quite a few mental perks.
Childhood exercise helps with brain development, specifically reasoning, decision-making, creativity, and memory.
So get them moving and there's a good chance you'll see some movement in their school performance too, helping them excel not just on the playing field but also in the classroom.
4. More Family Time
The family that exercises together, stays together. Studies show that working out together enhances our social connections at a deep level. This effect is just as strong within families. Exercising with your kid builds trust, creates positive memories of something challenging you accomplished together, and sets a good example.
“There is such a connection when you get together and you're seeing each other having fun,” says McWhirter.
“Family time is important—families eat dinner together, watch TV together, why can't they be active together?”
Children are constantly looking to their parents for cues on how to behave, and sedentary parents send the message that exercise isn't important. By contrast, the parent who's moving and playing alongside them is saying 'this is fun, this is worth doing, and this is something special we can share'.
McWhirter can't wait to take his young kids out on the golf course, but in the meantime he's taking plenty of walks with the stroller and hoping something sticks. He says—“It’s very important for me to set an example for my kids. I see all the things my daughter picks up without me even noticing and I want to set an example for her future. The more it’s put in front of them, the more it will sink in.”
How to Start a Family Fitness Routine
One of the biggest barriers to family workouts is time. Parents aren't just parents, they have their own lives and a lot to juggle. Some days, it's enough of a win to get dinner on the table and kids in bed.
McWhirter says the best way to make movement happen is to set it in stone—
“It can be difficult to schedule it in but the best examples I've seen are people who do exactly that—they schedule it. We have no lack of tools for that in our modern world, you can use an online calendar or alert. You have to make it a priority.”
Of course, no-one's perfect and there will be bad days. McWhirter acknowledges that anything involving kids needs some degree of flexibility—
“No-one's perfect, it may not always be possible to get the whole family together, you have to have a little bit of give and take, and just keep trying.”
So if you can't get everyone together once a week, try setting a more realistic goal. Make the first Saturday of every month your day for a family hike or spend every other Sunday at the park. Find what works for your family, and make that commitment together.
Another challenge is the dreaded T word (teenager). While young kids rarely need an excuse to play, older ones tend to be more interested in Twitter than training. Add in all the post-puberty angst, and self-consciousness and the last thing your average teen wants to do is run around with their parents and siblings.
McWhirter suggests sitting down with your teen and giving them choices. “Chat with your kids and ask them if there's something they'd like to try. Give them different options, and find out if there are other things you can explore with them. There are endless activities out there: climbing, bouldering, kayaking... If a kid feels out of place in team sports, they could try something a bit different and take pride in doing something not everyone else does.”
His biggest piece of advice is to take your cues from your kid. If they're not big on the idea, go slow.
“Don't overthink it. Go with the flow. The end goal is have some family activity together, if that becomes a chore it won't stick.”
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.