Health & Fitness

Keeping Kids Fit: Make fitness fun for the whole family

The season of beautiful weather is upon South Florida, and that’s a perfect time to get our children outside and moving. Introduce them to the wealth of fitness resources right in our backyard, including miles of beautiful beaches, waterways and hundreds of acres of parks.

Being physically active from early childhood can build a lifetime of healthy habits. Research of children of all ages shows that not only does regular exercise and activity increase physical and cardiovascular health, it can improve sleep; reduce stress, depression and anxiety; increase attention, learning and school performance; and minimize illness, all while maintaining a healthy weight. Not to mention that a good cardiovascular workout stimulates the brain to release endorphins, the body’s “feel good” natural opiates, giving an extra kick of energy and a dose of euphoria after each workout.

Knowing the importance of exercise and doing something about it are two different things. As a parent of two teenagers and one tween, I can totally appreciate the load of commitments that most families are under. Family, school, extracurricular activities, team sports…and the list goes on.

One way to find time for fitness is to turn it into a family activity. More than a dozen county parks have outdoor fitness gyms that are free. Why not circuit train together? A Zumba, salsa, hip hop or martial arts class provides a great introduction to a new activity for all family members. You can also try an indoor trampoline park or cross fit box that offers introductory rate discounts for an entire family.

This time of year there seems to be at least one charitable 5K run/walk every weekend that you can register for as a family. Buy a pedometer and let every member of the family wear it for a day. If your family has a competitive streak, use the monitor to start a family contest for most steps walked during the day or week.

Another option is to have a one-on-one fitness date with each child in your home. Most likely your kids have their own preferred activities and interests, including which sports they like to play. Maybe one child likes to ride bikes but another prefers a pick-up game of basketball. With a personal fitness date, you are not only giving your children the gift of fitness, but your undivided attention as well. I have found these fitness dates to be some of my most priceless memories as a mother.

Years of developing successful, engaging, community-based physical activity programs at UHealth, in partnership with such organizations as Miami Dade County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces, has consistently taught us one thing: A fundamental component to instilling a love of physical activity during childhood is that every program must include the “f” word: FUN. The best way to turn children off from adopting daily physical activity as a lifetime habit is to make it regimented and boring.

Children, by nature, love to move. Have you ever seen a toddler as soon as he or she learns how to walk not want to get up and move, run, climb, explore? As children develop, this innate need transforms into such games as tag, hide-and-seek, dodge ball, capture the flag and kickball. In adolescence, these games may transition into competitive or non-competitive structured sports programs like dance, martial arts or soccer.

Regardless of what you decide to do as a fitness activity, it's important to make it enjoyable for everyone. Having fun together as a family is as important as the physical activity itself. This may include taking a walk together after dinner a few times a week. On the weekends try a nature hike in one of our beautiful parks, or explore our countless waterways in tandem kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards.

As you prepare to kick off 2015, remember these three takeaways when planning your family’s fitness activities: Choose an age-appropriate activity for your child so they won’t become bored or frustrated. Give lots of opportunity to be active in a variety of ways. Keep the focus on fun. Incorporate these tips into your exercise and a good time will be had by the whole family as you play the day away.

Sarah E. Messiah, Ph.D., MPH, is a pediatric epidemiologist and research associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Clinical Research, at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Her research focuses on strategies to maintain healthy weight and cardiovascular health during childhood. For more information, visit