Give Your Family a Health Makeover
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Fitness

Give Your Family a Health Makeover

Could you whip your couch potato crew into shape in just a month? One health-bent mom reports on her adventures as head household cheerleader.

How to Make Your Family Healthier

How to Make Your Family Healthier

I used to be a gym rat. I lifted weights, blew off steam in aerobics class, and then stuck around for the first 30 minutes of a yoga session before catching up with my fiance for a veggie burger and a low-cal beer. Then came marriage and Baby Boy One. As a new mom, I was lucky if I squeezed in a weekly Pilates class or jog in the park. Post Baby Boy Two? I pretty much fell off the fitness wagon altogether. My time became neatly divided into two piles: kids and work. Running? I was too darn tired. Besides, it seemed indulgent to take an hour for myself.

In the plus column, I was cooking more, so you'd expect we'd eat better. And initially we did. But fast-forward a dozen-plus years, Baby Boys One and Two are quick-growing teenagers: Mac, 18, and Mose, 14. The organic peas have given way to the convenient-but-not-so-good-for-you foods that kids crave and make busy moms cave. (Do you know that there can be 500 or more calories in a frozen burrito? Extra-cheese sausage pizza? You don't want to know.) Though we're free of chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, our sedentary habits and less than perfect diets have left us...underfit.

Recently, at about the same time that high cholesterol drove my husband, Peter, back to the gym, I realized I'd edged from an oh-my-jeans-are-tight condition, curable with a few days of good living, to a more permanent state of pudge. I alternated for a while between denial ("Hey, I don't look too bad!") and disbelief ("What the heck happened here?"). Finally I bought a pair of running shoes and hit the bricks. At first I walked. Then I, groan, jogged. I hooked up with a neighborhood running group to keep my motivation steady and, newly energized, began preaching the fitness gospel around my house.

My zeal was met with the bored stares of two teenage boys sprawled on the couch, watching TV and munching on cookies. Clearly, spreading enthusiasm for good health habits was going to take time. It wouldn't happen overnight or even in a week. Realistically, I had to give us at least a month to see which junk food and sitcom patterns we could overhaul. And since old -- and fattening -- habits die hard, I would need a little help.

The first expert I consulted heartily endorsed my plan. Healthy living is easiest when it's a family affair, the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center's Edward Laskowski, MD, told me when we chatted on the phone. A specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, he had spent plenty of time thinking about kids and exercise. "Parents need to initiate discussions about exercise, but they can make it a team effort," he explained. "Each family member is needed to make the team function well."

That night, with my go-team-go attitude in place, I "invited" my family to be part of my fitness club. "All right, guys, I think it's time we all got fitter," I suggested over a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. There was quiet chewing around the table.

"What would we have to do?" Mose inquired, sounding worried.

"You know, eat better and exercise more," I answered hopefully. Quiet chewing turned to plain old quiet.

I continued enthusiastically. "It could be fun. Everyone liked when we went kayaking on vacation, right?" Nods all around. "Well, that was active; we could do it again."

"We can skip school and go back to New Mexico?" Mose asked, suddenly ready to sign on.

"Well, no," I admitted.

"What about paintball? That looks cool, and it's very active," Mac pointed out. Mose agreed excitedly.

Donning camo and shooting my husband and sons with an air gun? Not my idea of life-affirming exercise, or good parenting. I struggled to explain. "The idea is to find everyday things we can do to lay down some lifelong healthy habits," I said. "How about it? Let's give it a month."

"Nah," Mac said. Peter shrugged.

Clearly, playing nice wasn't going to cut it. "Change is coming!" I snapped. Peter wandered into the kitchen for more spaghetti. My sons looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Not a promising beginning, but it got better. Four weeks later, here are the lessons I've learned.

4 Steps to a Healthier Family

Start Simple

My first impulse was to launch a fitness version of "shock and awe": Chuck the TV and prepare nothing but vegan meals. Fortunately Philippa Gordon, MD, our pediatrician in Brooklyn, urged me to start small. "A series of minor upgrades is better than one big change, because it creates a pattern of healthier behavior," she pointed out. She advised me not to just tell my kids and husband to get moving but to join in myself, with activities like tag football and Frisbee.

We held another family meeting over dinner -- this time, spaghetti and turkey meatballs -- to discuss limiting video gaming and idle Facebook chatting to make room for more active pursuits. I asked my sons to think of an exercise we could do together. They resisted less than I'd anticipated, but instead of football or soccer they wanted to hit the gym with Peter after dinner. So we got them their own membership cards at the local Y and enrolled them in an introductory strength-training course. Very quickly my former couch potatoes were hefting iron in the weight room and logging time on the stairclimber. True, the machines faced a TV, so Mose could watch MythBusters as he sweated. But as the good doctor said, it's all about the little changes.

Expand Their Horizons

There's nothing like an exercise class to get my butt moving. Zumba, Pilates, or kettlebells -- for me, all good. It turned out that my family was more selective. Mose took one look at the average age of my aerobics classmates and backed slowly out of the room. Shaken by his Close Encounter with Middle-Aged Women, he went with Peter to find himself a trainer at a nearby boxing gym. Before I could say "Mike Tyson," Mose was getting the workout of a lifetime with a speed bag. Not to be outdone, Mac found a Muay Thai martial arts instructor and began practicing combat kicks, jabbing his feet into walls, the refrigerator door, the light switches, and his brother.

Peter -- muscular, yes; flexible, no -- gamely attended a yoga class with me. (A room full of lithe ladies in spandex, I pointed out to him. What's not to like?) But Bikram yoga, in which practitioners perform rigorous asanas in 105-degree heat, was a disaster. "Why is it so hot in here?" he mouthed to me with a panicked look on his face 10 minutes into class. "I told you," I said. "It's Bikram yoga. The heat is the point." "Bikram? I thought you said 'big room' yoga!" he hissed. I looked around, and the source of the misunderstanding dawned on me. This class was given in the larger of the two yoga studios at our Y. Ninety miserable minutes later my long-suffering spouse, sweat-soaked and ornery, put his hands on my shoulders. "I will never. In. This. Lifetime. Do that again," he said with great deliberation. "So please don't ask me."

Finally I hit the group-activity jackpot: I splurged on a two-person inflatable kayak, similar to the ones we'd had a blast with in New Mexico, for us to take turns paddling in New York Harbor. The whole family loved it. It was an adventure, it took teamwork, and shh! it gave us an excellent workout.

Food, Reconsidered

Despite some false starts, my scheme to get my family moving more was working better than I'd hoped. Now it was time to tackle our eating habits. For this I needed the help of another pro. Elisa Zied, RD, author of Feed Your Family Right!, advised me to change my good-food patter. "Talk in terms they can understand, like 'You'll have better skin if you eat more fruits and vegetables,'" she suggested. "Or 'You'll do better on the test if you eat breakfast.' And show them what to do by example."

Leading the charge, I replaced white-flour tortillas and white bread with whole wheat versions and started cooking big batches of steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast. The verdict? Yum. A big green salad, however, got a big F. Peter and I chowed down, but the kids wouldn't bite. Later I got them to munch on crunchy red bell pepper and jicama sticks, much to my surprise.

They also went with the flow when it came to cutting excess liquid calories. Taking a cue from Dad, my sons swapped soda for tap water and unsweetened iced tea, while I replaced the many fruit juices and sports drinks in the fridge with seltzer -- all to little complaint.

But then I tried to feed them 100 percent whole wheat pasta, and the experiment threatened to crash. "This tastes like something farm animals eat," Mac complained.

"It's good for you," I responded lamely as Mose pushed the logs of brown penne around his plate. "I mean...it will give you lots of energy!"

At the end of the meal, Peter mildly observed, "Well, the upside of making whole wheat pasta is, we definitely eat less of it." A batch of half white and half whole wheat was better, but the real breakthrough came when I dug out a hand-cranked pasta maker, a wedding gift from all those years ago. Mose, our foodie in training, figured out how to make a mean egg noodle, which is higher in protein than a plain white one. It's a full-day procedure: He mixes the batter, feeds the dough into the machine to cut the strands, then dries them by looping them around the backs of the kitchen chairs. Now once in a while, along with a chicken paillard and a plate of raw vegetables, we have a side treat of homemade egg noodles topped with olive oil, grated Parmesan, and a twist of fresh black pepper. And we relish every bite.

Stick with It

Four weeks is not a lifetime (unless you are eating whole wheat pasta), but by the end I could sense improvement. My team is now eating (slightly) better, drinking fewer empty calories and, thanks to the kayak, the gym, and their self-selected disciplines, exercising much more. True, I haven't dropped a dress size or started running six-minute miles. My boys, all three of them, look and act about the same. But visible change was never the point. When it came to making over my family's health, I realized that a change in attitude was what mattered most.

Three Ways to Kick-Start Your Family Makeover

By Samantha Shelton

Be persistent. If they hate the sauteed spinach tonight, try again next week and then the week after that. Research shows that it can take up to 15 attempts at trying a new food for kids to decide whether they like it.

Keep 'em moving. Schedule plenty of activities -- touch football, tag, after-dinner walks -- even if your kids already play sports. Only 24 percent of 7- to 14-year-old soccer, softball, and baseball players get the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' recommended daily dose of 60 minutes of physical activity during team practice, a new study at San Diego State University finds.

Switch up their games. Research shows that active-play video games are comparable to light physical activity, like walking. They also keep kids entertained in ways they're used to. Plus, your kids will have so much fun swinging a baseball bat with Nintendo's Wii Sports and rocking out to dance games, like Dance Central for Kinect for Xbox 360, you'll want to join them.

Fit-Family Resources to Help You...

Get motivated. At ymca.net/healthy-family-home, print the Quick Start Kit, packed with fit tips and ideas for healthy food choices, and the Progress Tracker, which you can post on your fridge.

Organize your game plan. Go to letsmove.gov to download grocery-list and family-workout-calendar templates.

Sign up. Locate recreational sports leagues in your area through NFL Play 60 at nflrush.com/play60. Or start your own youth running initiative through Kids Run the Nation, a program of the Road Runners Club of America, at kidsrunthenation.org.

Eat better. Get gardening and food lessons to teach at home or pass on to your kids' school at edibleschoolyard.org.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2011.

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