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Getting Your Family in Shape

Got some health goals for yourself and your kids? Here are seven ways parents can get their crew to exercise more – and not make it a chore!

Starting – and maintaining – a fitness habit with your family can be tough, especially with the chilly temperatures. If you've been wondering how to keep your family active, though, and you need a little inspiration, here are a few ways to get healthier – together.

1. Lead by example

Experts and parents agree: The first step is making fitness a priority yourself. Christine Hughes tries to avoid complaining about her exercise aches and pains in front of her three kids, ages 5 to 12. "I really like to make all my comments about exercise positive," says the Canton mom. "My kids can see that running isn't a chore for me."

To spark motivation, Hughes formed a running group called the Dirt Road Divas with a friend. In the eight years since the group's creation, the ranks have swelled to over 100 members, mostly moms. "It's hard to get off the couch," says Hughes. But "when I'm active, I'm happy – and that's good for the whole family."

2. Start 'em young

Family lifestyle therapist Amy Hendel says between the births of her two children, getting out of the house to exercise was hard. Instead, she concentrated on exercises she could do at home, with – even using – her kids. "I could put my baby on my stomach as I did exercises," says Hendel, author of Fat Families, Thin Families. "or have one of my younger children on my back as I did pushups." Over time, exercising became part of the family routine, instead of something they had to fit in.

Take time to explain why it's important, she adds. Even young children can understand you saying "We need to move our bodies to feel happy" or "When we move our bodies, we have more energy to do fun things." If kids know why they should be moving more, they're more likely to go along.

3. Keep up the creativity

Staying active during colder winter months can be a challenge. Instead of giving up on till spring, adjust your idea of what "exercise" should be. Challenge your kids to a pillow fight, play hide and seek in your house, or turn on some music and dance. You also can check out fitness DVDs at your library to try out at home.

Take the fun outside, too, and sled or ice skate, for instance. "Taking the sled up the hill can be a great aerobic workout," says Hughes. Or simply bring your kids with you when you head out to shovel the snow. Build a snowman with them after you've finished the driveway.

4. Forget your genes!

"We know for certain that some people are destined for a slower metabolism or to gain weight in certain areas of their bodies," says Hendel. "That being said, there's a lot of other things going on that relate to weight gain that has nothing to do with genetics."

Activity levels, food choices and TV time all contribute to your family's fitness level – and they're things you can control. Plus weight isn't an accurate picture of overall health. A person can be fit and active and still not be "skinny." And just because someone's slim doesn't mean they're healthy.

5. Set realistic goals

"One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when they're trying to establish a new fitness routine is to push themselves too hard," says Laura Yauck, member services manager at the Beverly Hills Club in Beverly Hills, Michigan. "They expect to come in seven days a week from day one."

At the same time, Yauck acknowledges consistency is key for success. So decide what's doable; then put the kids on your schedule – "just as you would a doctor's appointment or your child's dance class," she Yauck. For example, set a goal of going to the gym or dancing with your kids at a certain time of day two or three times a week. Put the time and dates on your calendar.

Get your children in on the planning, too. Explain that you want to exercise more as a family, so that you can be healthier. Talk to your kids about your plan. Put your calendar, with your scheduled fitness, somewhere everyone can see it. And ask your kids to help you remember when it's time to work out. Odds are, if they feel responsible for reminding you, you'll stick to it more.

6. Divide and conquer

Often the best way to stay fit as a family is to exercise on your own, then together. Yauck explains: "At our gym, you can have mom go to a class, dad can lift weights and the kids can go to a martial arts or tennis class. Then you can come together after and go shoot a few hoops or swim."

At home, do the treadmill while your kids dance to music nearby or, if you're done shoveling outside and your kids want to keep playing, let them!

One note: Make sure you monitor. Not all exercises are safe for kids, like stationary bikes, treadmills and other gym equipment.

7. Reward with activity

Don't forget to reward your family's efforts. But instead of celebrating with a big dinner – or worse, sugary snacks – Wendel recommends time. Let your child know she'll get to go on a special daddy-daughter date at the end of the month if your family can keep up with their exercise schedule. Instead of seeing a movie, play tennis at the gym or go ice skating.

Remember, keeping your family fit is more than finding the time. It's also about building stronger ties – and stronger muscles.

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