Weekly Wellness: Strengthen the family with physical fitness

AP Photos
AP Photos

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses how to get your kids involved in daily physical activity while making it a bonding experience for the whole family.

At 37 weeks of pregnancy, my wife and I are anticipating the birth of our firstborn child. I’m not sure if it’s my natural, fatherly instincts that are kicking in, but I am already visualizing playing with my son, teaching him about life, morals and values, and giving him the best I have to offer with what my life has taught me in 30 years. While there are so many beliefs and world views, I feel that we can all agree on one thing: the traditional family in America needs to be strengthened and fought for and tended to. There are many ways to do this, but for today, I would like to suggest that group physical activity is one of the key ways that families can strengthen their bond and flourish.

It is an undisputed fact that regular physical activity improves the quality of life. This is true for babies, toddlers, children, teenagers and adults of every single age. Our bodies require movement for proper brain function, organ function, joint function, hormone production and overall well-being. Physical activity – I am talking about the vigorous kind – improves quality of life to such an extent that to not do it regularly leads to depression, less quality of sleep, weaker bones and muscles, deteriorating joints, inadequate mental functioning, irritability and fat gain. With what we know about the needs of the human body, there should be a greater emphasis placed upon family fitness bonding.

Yes, I am giving a term to this concept, and I am calling it family fitness bonding. I hope you like it. In all seriousness, I feel that physical fitness can be of huge benefit to the family-strengthening experience.

The times I loved the most growing up were the times when my family was playing together: wrestling with my dad in the family room, playing catch outside, throwing the football, playing soccer with my mom, grandparents, and cousins, playing ghost in the graveyard with my siblings and hide and seek with my grandma, having my grandpa teach me how to hit a baseball, or having my father teach me how to lift weights. Physical fitness can be such an incredible bonding experience for the family that I feel it needs to be put into a weekly schedule of family fitness time. 

The life lessons that can be learned during this time are vital to a child’s development. The physical responses to fitness are obvious, such as the increase in brain endorphins (happiness), increased coordination and cardiovascular health, and an increase in flexibility. As a parent, you have the incredible opportunity to use physical activity as a means to teach self-control to your kids, to teach them to be disciplined with fitness, which translates into all areas of life, to instill in them life long habits that lead to regular physical activity and become second nature to them by the time they reach adult hood. You have the opportunity to make physical activity such a habit that they develop love for movement, and to go a day without it will feel like they are missing something. 

Parents, you don’t have time to workout? This is the number one excuse for not being active. I have the perfect solution for you! Plan three weekly, hour-long physically active games or workouts that you can do with your children. I really believe younger kids would rather be playing or working out with you instead of playing an organized sport. There is not one child I train who does not look over during their workout (sometimes in the middle of an exercise) and see if their parents are watching. During these moments I realize how much children want to succeed for their parents. I beg you, make time for fitness bonding with your kids, because ultimately they are doing it for you. Your kids want to play with you and they will remember it forever. Make some of these activities more strenuous and others more game-like.  Here are some ideas for you for family fitness hour:

  1. Good old-fashioned catch – get outside and throw with your son or daughter. They will remember this for the rest of their lives. I have.
  2. Walk, jog, or run for one mile only, every day. When I have parents ask me what their kid can do for regular activity, I tell them to have their kid run .5 to 1 mile every day as fast as possible. And do it with them. That’s it. The results are incredible with kids – they come in to my sports performance facility ready for anything from their daily 10 minute conditioning burst.
  3. Family sport time. 30-60 minutes of ultimate Frisbee, or a soccer game with trash cans as the goals, or a basketball game. 
  4. Wrestle. Kids crave physical bonding with their parents! This is perhaps the single best thing to do with your kids. I remember being 5 years old or so going at my dad with full force, barely able to move him, and as I grew I could start to make more of an impact during our infamous, epic wrestling matches that I so looked forward to. And this gaining of physical strength I felt when wrestling him vastly improved my self-confidence. I felt like I was becoming a man. This is crucial for boys in particular, but I know my sister loved this as well.
  5. 15 minute high-intensity workouts, bodyweight only. I would include this one day a week, in a rotation with wrestling and family sport time. This is the day you directly challenge your children to improve. Kids need to be challenged. They need to know they can win, succeed, thrive. And reward them in some fashion when they do succeed. Circuits of burpees, squats, squat jumps, lunges, push ups, planks and sit ups are all movements that are easily tolerated by kids of all ages. Get creative with this, and have your kids get involved in the creation of the workouts. They will love this.  And, remember, the whole point of this is you have to do it with them! No more excuses about lack of time.

I look around our society and I see many children who need more from their parents, and many parents who need to take back quality time and bonding with their kids. I also see the need for the improvement of health and wellness for both children and adults in this country. With some creativity and structure, a weekly schedule can be established that helps meet both demands of more quality time between parent and child, and more physical activity for both. I envision a time when I see fathers and mothers actually playing games and running and throwing with their kids. Let’s bring this back to our way of life in America! Let’s put down the TV remote, put down the iPhones, slow down our pace of life and our obsession with career, and remember that our children literally are our future. 

THE TAKEAWAY: Physical bonding through games and workouts with your own children will help instill in them the desire for physical movement, an incredible bonding time with your kids, life lessons of self-control and pushing through pain, embracing challenges, and recognizing the need for hard-work and discipline. I cannot wait to do this with my son. Let’s lead our youth in the direction of health and wellness!

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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