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When I come in from a run, my three children ask how far I went, and they sometimes help me track my progress. I'd always hoped that seeing me exercise would motivate them to do the same.
Nick, my oldest, was the first to follow in my footsteps, when he was in kindergarten. It started with the one-quarter-mile Jogfest sponsored by our elementary school; by sixth grade he'd mastered the 5K. He was a natural -- always among the first finishers.
Running is something I can do with Nick, who is now 15. He's too fast to work out with me regularly, but we've done a couple of races. It's a way for us to connect and to participate in a healthy activity.Kids on the Go
Running is great exercise for kids. "It burns calories, builds muscle, and helps create a strong cardiovascular system," says Don Kardong, an Olympic marathoner and coauthor of Children's Running: A Guide for Parents and Kids, published by the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA).
To inspire your children to put on their sneakers, be a running role model. Watching you do it -- and seeing the benefits you get from being fit -- is likely to make them want to try it. Show them how exhilarating running can be by taking them to a race (find one near you at rrca.org) or a high school track meet. Once they're ready to hit the road, ease them into it. "Start out slowly, build up gradually, and allow kids to stop and rest anytime they want," says Andrew Gregory, MD, an executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.
Jean Knaack, executive director of the RRCA, has figured out what gets her kids going. A couple of nights a week she takes her 6-year-old daughter, Jena, and her 5-year-old son, James, for a run around the block. She makes it a game. "I'll tell them to run to the lamppost and freeze," Knaack says. "From there I'll say, 'Race to the blue mailbox.' That keeps them engaged."
As you run with your kids, teach them to set goals. Write down each milestone, such as a 5K, and list what it will take to achieve it, Knaack suggests. Then, start jogging together three or four days a week. To make it more challenging, gradually increase your total weekly mileage by 10 percent, says Joel Brenner, MD, medical director of the sports medicine program at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia.
Remember, though, that kids' abilities vary a lot, Kardong says, and their cartilage is more susceptible to injury. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, many experts agree that to run a mile a child should be at least in second grade. By fifth grade, kids can do three miles. "If they run too intensely, kids often burn out," Kardong explains.
Keep it fun and chances are you'll instill a lifelong love of fitness in your children. Today, Nick is talking about joining the track team, and Spencer, 11, just ran a one-mile fun run. Holly, 6, did her first half mile. I'm proud to think that I played some small part in getting my kids to the starting line.
Keep your family fitness routine safe and fun with these tips:
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2009.