For a busy parent, kids can be an obstacle to exercise: How can I distract or babysit them so I can get my workout in? But kids can join in a lot of workouts, too — you just have to pick the right approach for their age and personality.
Turn Everything Into a Game
Kids have unlimited energy for things they find fun, even if they suddenly get “tired” when you propose something else. If you’re going to make a family workout happen, you need to make sure it’s something the kids will enjoy.
Jen Allan, a personal trainer and fitness instructor in Pleasanton, California, alternates exercises with games in her classes for kids. After a few minutes of squats and lunges, for example, the next activity might be a game of tag or some time running around shooting each other with Nerf guns. It’s still good exercise, but feels more like play.
She shared some of her favourite kids’ activities with us. These work for groups or you can try them one-on-one:
- Roll dice. Write the numbers from two to 12 on a whiteboard, with a different exercise for each. Roll a pair of dice and race each other to complete the exercise. You can also assign an exercise to each letter of the alphabet, and have kids “spell” their names or favourite words. Or, draw exercises from a deck of cards. They don’t have to be playing cards, either — Allan’s kids work out with a pile of superhero trading cards.
- Create an obstacle course. That is, have the kids create an obstacle course. This works well at a playground, or you can set something up in your backyard or living room. You can time the kids as they run through. “It’s a fun competition but the kids are taking ownership of it,” she says.
- Send the kids on relay races. Allan does this with groups of kids: They have to race to the middle of the gym one at a time and take off their shoes. Then everybody has to go back and put them on again. First team done wins! Relays can also involve carrying water or tennis balls from bucket to bucket.
You’ll have to tweak these ideas to suit your kids, because unfortunately you can’t make a thing fun just by declaring it to be so. Not every kid likes to compete in races, for example, but an untimed obstacle course may be more their style. For younger kids, keep the exercises simple so they don’t get frustrated.
Work Out While They Run and Play
You probably want to get your workout in, too. Once the kids get bored of structured exercises and want to run and play, that’s your chance. Allan suggests doing a workout in a park, then setting the kids loose on the playground while you exercise within view of them. Any bodyweight exercises can work for this scenario, or try some playground-specific moves like inverted rows on a swing or monkey bars, or tricep dips on a nearby bench.
For little kids that need to stay within arm’s reach, do your workout at home. Allan suggests giving the kid a job like moving tennis balls from one bucket to another, where they have to walk or run across the room. If the kid isn’t mobile yet, you can do yoga moves or callisthenics alongside a baby that’s just sitting and watching you from the comfort of the yoga mat. And if that doesn’t work out, you can at least get your workout in by doing a short video or routine while they nap.
Put on a Dance Party
There are workout videos and classes that appeal to kids — and the best ones keep kids’ idea of fun in mind rather than trying to somehow glue “fun” onto an adult-style workout.
Cosmic Kids Yoga is a great example. It’s also where my kids learned to do tree pose, a fairly challenging move where they stand on one foot (or in a modified version of this). They loved that the TV lady was trying to blow down their “tree” through the TV, and I think they liked it even more when I would do it with them, because refusing to fall over was a hilarious act of defiance. And then on top of those cool moves, my kids loved following along with the stories and beginning with the “secret code word” Namaste.
There are other story-driven workout shows, like Bo on the Go, but you can also go for less structured exercise videos. The best kind, in my opinion: Dance parties. Upbeat kids’ music is great for dancing, no matter what your age. Try The Laurie Berkner Band and The Wiggles for starters.
Hit the Road (or the Track)
Running is a simple sport for kids, but their little legs and lungs mean they may have a hard time keeping up with you. If you’re going to run on a road or path, have the kid ride their bike alongside you (I see parents doing this all the time at the park). Or if this is more about their running, consider it a brisk walk for yourself.
If you have access to a track, though, you have more options. My kids had a hard time grasping the concept of jogging; all they could do was sprint. So I showed them one of my favourite interval workouts: Sprint the straightaways and walk the curves. I would give them a head start on the sprints, and then follow behind and chase them so we hit the “finish line” together.
After the run, of course, you can let them play. Most tracks have a grassy field in the middle, and often a sand pit or two for the long jump. The first time I brought my kid, he made a beeline for the sand, despite my objections. And I remembered how I did the same thing when I was a kid.
Expect a little of the unexpected. Your kids may not love your brilliant workout ideas, or they may decide that the best part about Daddy doing planks is that they can crawl under (or over!) you. In some cases, you may need to cut your workout short. But as you learn their preferences, you should be able to find some creative ways to make the workout fun for both of you.
For example, my toddler always wanted to pick up my dumbbells. So I got him a pair of tiny ones of his own. Did he want to do a mini workout alongside me? Of course not! He found the big weights fascinating, and he didn’t like the tiny ones any better than I did. So I did single dumbbell exercises, and he did what I can only describe as toddler deadlifts.
Some kids will be motivated to try a sport or activity just because Mum or Dad does it. If that applies, give them a gentle introduction to running or cycling or soccer or whatever you love. Others are driven by competition, so set up your workout as a series of challenges, or if the kid seems like they can handle a long term goal, consider training for a 1.5km race.
Whatever works for your family, keep doing it! Even if it feels like you’re floundering at first, building a habit of working out together will pay off in the long run.