It started a few years ago, when Dawn decided to get into shape while Craig, an officer in the Marine Corps, was deployed. “I was always thin, but I couldn’t run up the street,” Dawn, 46, says. “I would go into the gym and be intimidated.” She hired a personal trainer, which ignited a passion for fitness, and when Craig returned, she began going to CrossFit with him.
Their enthusiasm for CrossFit made an impression on their children: Jylian, now 16, and Weston, now 13, saw the commitment and energy their parents were putting into working out — and the positive results — and wanted to join. “Jylian was the first one that said, ‘Can I try?’” Dawn says. “We started teaching her Olympic lifting and she loved it.”
Dawn and Craig began accumulating gym equipment and exercise certifications. Dawn’s credentials include being an ACE-certified personal trainer and youth fitness specialist. Craig’s include certifications in USA Weightlifting and the Marine Corps’ High-Intensity Interval Training program. The family works out together in their garage, and the kids visit the CrossFit gym with their parents when they aren’t busy with school and sports. The family also does mud runs and obstacle courses together. “It’s important that we’re out there, doing these things together, as a family,” Dawn says.
It’s also important that kids get in the habit of exercising, experts say. Research indicates that parents’ activity level and encouragement play vital roles in determining how physically active their kids are.
Want to foster your own culture of family fitness? Here are eight tips to help (having a gym at home isn’t required).
Just get moving. “It is so hard to get started — especially when you have kids,” Dawn says. Something as simple as getting off the couch and going outside together as a family is a great way to get the ball rolling, says Andrew Shniderman, personal trainer and owner of Fit First Academy, which offers classes and one-on-one training for D.C.-area youths. “Go for a 10 minute walk together,” he says. “Spend some time doing something where you are moving.”
Be enthusiastic — and sincere — about exercise. If you don’t enjoy weightlifting, don’t expect your clan to suddenly be thrilled about pumping iron. “Kids can sense when you’re faking it,” Shniderman warns. “Find something that you yourself want to do.” If you bring true excitement to an activity, the whole family will pick up on that. In the same vein, Shniderman says, try to keep your entire workout engaging and high energy, whether it lasts 15 minutes or an hour.
Make a plan and stick with it. Every Sunday, Dawn gathers her family and maps out their schedule for their week. “We plan when we’re going to work out, who’s picking up kids here, who’s dropping them off there, what time their sports end, who’s starting meals,” Dawn says. “Planning is everything.”
Consistency and commitment are important, too. “Don’t use anything that pops up in your day as an excuse to not work out,” Dawn says. “I’ll hear, ‘Oh, I have a dentist appointment, I can’t go to the gym.’ Well, why can’t you go before the appointment or after it?” Finding a routine that works for your family may not be easy, Dawn says. “But once you find what works, you’ll keep going.”
Consider an app or a fitness tracker. Recent research shows families that use fitness trackers that incorporate elements such as points or levels — otherwise known as “gamification” — are more likely to achieve their fitness goals than those who do not.
In a 2017 study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University followed adults from 94 families who engaged in a game to track their steps for 12 weeks, with a 12-week follow-up. The study’s big takeaway: Adding a social game component to their exercise technology “significantly increased physical activity among families.” Digital exercise tracking comes with the bonus of being able to easily see the stats on your progress, too, which helps you celebrate the achievements.
Find a family-friendly gym. Gyms can provide an array of opportunities for families to work out together, according to Robin Hedrick, director of community health for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. The YMCAs in Minneapolis and St. Paul offer an extensive lineup of group exercise classes for families, including yoga, boot camps and dance classes. (Kids must be at least 3 to participate.)
“It doesn’t matter what you choose to do,” Hedrick said in an email. “It is important for children to see their parents exercising or ‘playing’ with them.” Shop around to find the right gym, Dawn advises, and visit at the same times you’ll be working out, so you get a good sense of the atmosphere.
Try an event that isn’t timed. Signing up for an untimed family event such as a Volksmarch or a bike tour can help take the pressure off performance and keep the focus on a shared activity. Or consider Tough Mudder, held across the United States and other countries. It’s a muddy obstacle course series that was originally developed in 2010 for adults. The goal was to create an experience that encourages teamwork over competition, Tough Mudder chief executive Kyle McLaughlin says.
The event morphed into a “fitness festival” atmosphere when participants started bringing their families, he says. So about five years ago, the organization introduced the Mini Mudder, a scaled-down version for kids ages 5 to 12, held on a quarter-mile loop. While parents and kids don’t compete together, siblings can. Tough Mudder’s ethos is a good thing for families to keep in mind: “It’s not about time or places and being first,” McLaughlin says. “It’s about doing stuff together.”
Don’t push your kids too hard. When your kids give you “the look,” it’s time to switch it up, Shniderman says. “A child is not like an adult. Adults know their limits and they need somebody to break their limits,” he says. “Kids are completely different.” Keep it from becoming a negative experience.
And remember, you’re parents, not coaches. “Sometimes teenagers get really frustrated when they can’t master a skill, and they want to give up,” Dawn says. “That’s when I turn Mom back on. I tell them, ‘It’s okay it didn’t work out the first time, we have to keep trying.’ Especially with CrossFit, it’s a lifetime of learning the skills.”
Get creative with your workouts. A little bit of imagination can go a long way. Shniderman points to a bear crawl as an example: “It’s not a bear crawl anymore,” he says. “It’s a ‘magic spider walk.’ I say, ‘You’re not on the floor, you’re on a web. The only thing that can stick to this web are your magic hands and magic feet.’ Now the kids are more bought in. They don’t want to get stuck on the spider web. Same goal, just a different way to execute it.”
Shniderman says he spends hours thinking up creative games involving exercise. “I never say, ‘Here’s my book of workouts and games, I’m done!’ ” he says. “The way kids interact with workouts changes from week to week and from year to year.” Just keeping exercise fun and fresh, whether it’s new games, different workout moves or changing goals, will go a long way toward establishing a family that works out together — and enjoys it.