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Making Fitness Fun for Kids

It's the key to keeping kids active, but how can your family make it happen?

Odds are good Ridge Foco doesn't realize – or care – that "The Race Game" is healthy. The 6-year-old just loves scrambling over couches and around other safe obstacles at his home in Onsted, near Ann Arbor. And that's fine with his mom, Zonya, who keeps track with a watch timer. She concocted the "game," in fact, and plays along.

"To be creative and be active with your kids makes not only for a healthy kid body and a healthy parent body, but it makes for great memories," says mom Foco, a certified health and fitness instructor. "We have to be careful that we're not pushing exercise. 'Fun' is the integral word."

Yet our state's kids tally scarcely 15 minutes of vigorous activity a day, according to the University of Michigan – and an hour is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So what can you do?

Moving in place

One solution is to convert sedentary-supporting culprits into allies. In their book The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood, acclaimed childcare experts William and Martha Sears explain: "If you have a child who loves to sit and watch TV or play computer or video games, have a house rule: TIME SITTING = TIME MOVING. Have kids exercise while watching the tube by jumping on a mini trampoline, jumping rope or flexing their muscles with an exercise band."

In other words, ensure kids' physical playtime equals their screen viewing. An extra 20 to 30 minutes of movement per day can help zap the average child's five or 10 extra pounds in about a year's time, they note.

Fun tricks

It's important to establish the habits early on, experts say, and to do it in a way that grabs attention. In local kid-geared health programs, Foco gets children moving by pumping high-energy music, having them "swim" the backstroke and "dribble" invisible basketballs. They love it, she says.

"It's not just telling the kids, 'OK, you're going to do this; you're going to do that,'" says Foco, who also offers tips Saturday mornings in Zonya's Health Bites on public television. "It's modeling it through the parents. I encourage whole families to get up together. That laundry will wait. Even if it's only 10, 15 minutes of activity – with your kids."

The right 'sport'

High-pressure sports don't jibe with certain kids. Sometimes, intramural or community rec teams can fill the void. Think outside organizations, too. In her top 10 recommendations of physical activities likely to interest kids, Florida-based dietician Ronni Litz Julien includes karate and martial arts, dancing, bicycle riding, Rollerblading and even jumping rope.

Options are important – and age is a factor, too. Toddlers need lots of unstructured time to romp in sandboxes and parks, notes Julien, who's served as nutrition consultant to Burger King Corp. and the U.S. Tennis Association. Organized sports can be introduced as early as age 4 or 5.

"Be sensitive to your child's needs," Julien writers in What Should I Feed My Kids? "If he feels uncomfortable with a particular activity, such as a sports team, help him to find a physical activity that is fun - and not an issue."

Once a child makes that decision, parents need to make the commitment, too, whether it's driving children to ballet lessons or to soccer practice.

Older kids

Challenges loom larger as kids get older. Some studies have found that even eager young children's attitudes towards physical activity can dwindle as they reach adolescence. In those cases, Foco suggests replacing old habits with new ones gradually. And don't throw in the towel.

"It really (takes an) extra effort to get off dead center," Foco says. "A lot of times, they say 'yes' the third time around. Encourage them for what they do do."

In the end, she said, the benefit to getting your child exercising is more than burning calories or building muscles; it also contributes to better self-esteem and an overall healthier kid.

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