20 ways to exercise (play and have fun) as a family this year

Kurt, Mackenzie (2), Jenny and Carter (4) Donnell and their dog Rio of Phoenix at Lookout Mountain in north Phoenix. Photos by Rick D'Elia.
Kurt, Mackenzie (2), Jenny and Carter (4) Donnell and their dog Rio of Phoenix at Lookout Mountain in north Phoenix. Photos by Rick D’Elia.

With work demands, juggling children’s schedules and managing a household, it’s easy to let exercise and fitness slide from the list of priorities. We all know this isn’t a great long-term plan, because making health and wellness a top priority benefits the whole family. Active adults have lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, Type 2 diabetes and colon and breast cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

Staying active also is an excellent way to serve as a role model for your kids — and it’s a good way to be around for your kids. Parents also need to learn from children who view exercise as a form of play.

Dr. Nirek Rastogi, a family physician and owner of My Family Doctor in the Valley, recommends adults exercise 150 minutes each week. But he advises his patients to start slowly to establish a routine rather than jumping into a time-intensive exercise regimen. Adults who successfully adopt a routine generally “go slow and adapt as they go,” he says, such as starting to exercise in 5- to 10-minute increments daily. This approach also prevents injuries and aching joints.

Rastogi understands that parents often complain there isn’t enough time to exercise. As a father of two young children, he exercises either early in the morning or late at night to fit in a workout. If this isn’t an option, he recommends taking a brisk 30-minute walk — either alone or as a family — every day.

“Parents are the best role models for children when it comes to embracing an active lifestyle,” says Dr. Rajeev Agarwal, owner of Agave Pediatrics and a local pediatrician since 2005.  The single biggest factor that promotes wellness in children is what they see the adults in their life doing, he says.

Children register the idea of exercise early on, Agarwal says, when “parents put their kids on their shoulders while walking down the street, they see Mom or Dad swimming in the pool or when the entire family goes for a hike.”

It’s important to choose age-appropriate activities kids can enjoy with an eye toward their interests and abilities, Agarwal says, adding that it’s the role of parents to “give kids a chance to try new pursuits when it comes to moving their bodies.”

There are plenty of opportunities for fun family exercise in the Valley of the Sun. Jenny and Kurt Donnell of Phoenix love hiking with their kids, Carter, 4, and Mackenzie, 2. (Kurt often carries their youngest in a hiking backpack.)

Kelli and Bryan Northey of Scottsdale keep it simple when it comes to fitness. They love taking their 2½-year-old daughter, Olivia, to kick a ball around at the park or to play Frisbee. Another local mom, Courtney Vitch of Scottsdale, has been running with her young daughter for years.

Tennis, pickleball, biking — even dancing or geocaching — are fun ways to start getting active as a family this year.

Agarwal believes parents too often embrace an “all or none” philosophy when it comes to kids’ athletics: either supporting competitive sports, such as football or basketball, or believing their children aren’t cut out for exercise.
“It is all about embracing an active lifestyle from a young age and advocating for physical activity that fits your child’s temperament,” he says.

Exercising as a family shouldn’t be complicated. The more fun you can make it, the more you’ll want to keep it up. Find something you can all enjoy together — even if it takes awhile to find the right activity. Here are 20 ideas that should help get you all on a fun path toward better health this year.

1. Bike riding. In the evening, my husband, Ashish, our 11-year-old daughter and I hop on bikes for a ride around the neighborhood. It’s a quick, old-fashioned, fun way of getting out and being active. At the end of a ride, our daughter always says, “That was so relaxing and fun.”

2. Chores. Don’t underestimate the calories burned by vacuuming, dusting, sweeping floors or folding laundry. Agarwal encourages kids who are “exercise resistant” to clean or do tasks around the house to keep them active. Each week, designate one evening or weekend afternoon as “family cleaning time.”

3. Dancing. Jennie and Scott Love of Scottsdale participate in a variety of exercises with their boys, Robert, 4, and Weston, 10 months. The boys love jumping jacks, hiking and doing yoga, Jennie says, adding: “And who can resist a good dance party?”  Turning up the music and busting a move is a great way to bring instant smiles to the whole family.

4. Frisbee. Throwing a Frisbee is another great way to run, learn hand-eye coordination and have fun as a family.

5. Hiking. The Valley has many easy, moderate and difficult hiking trails that offer free exercise and scenic views. Andrea Alley of Scottsdale adores hiking with her husband, Cody, and their two girls, Linnea, 6, and Caelynn, 4. Their favorite is “the Gateway Trail system at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, as well as the trails out of Tom’s Thumb on the north side of the preserve,” Alley says. A bonus: They often see deer and bald eagles during their hikes.

6. Hula-Hoops. If you haven’t tried this for awhile, you’ll be surprised what a workout it can be. Challenge your kids to a Hula-Hoop contest and get ready to laugh.

7. Geocaching. What kid doesn’t like a high-tech treasure hunt? If you have a smartphone or handheld GPS unit, you can do this almost anywhere. Sign on at geocaching.com or download the Geocaching app and start looking for these small treasure canisters, which typically feature tiny trading tokens and a log book to sign.

8. Jump ropes. Here’s another quick way to get in 10 minutes or more of exercise on a busy weeknight. It also improves coordination, takes very little equipment and is fun for all ages. Get out the ropes and see who can jump the longest, or get creative and try more advanced games, such as Double Dutch.

9. Meditation. We usually think of exercise as a physical pursuit, but it’s easy to neglect one’s mental health. Sitting and mindfully taking several deep breaths is a good way to unwind as a family. My husband, daughter and I sit for five to 10 minutes after dinner, close our eyes and meditate. It sets the tempo for the following day and helps us be mindful of our breath during the week.

10. Pickleball. This growing sport, which combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, is a perfect family game. Four pickleball courts fit into one tennis court, and the equipment is inexpensive: hard paddles and Wiffle balls. It’s played much like tennis, but the court size makes it easier for all ages. Visit azpickleball.info for court locations, tournaments and more.

11. Playing catch. You can do this anywhere, and it’s great for exercise and hand-eye coordination. A Nerf ball is great for all ages.

12. Pokémon Go. As a rule, too much screen time is a no-no for kids that can lead to mindless snacking and the opposite of an active lifestyle. But going outdoors to hunt for Pokémon Go characters can be a fun family activity. Some “eggs” in the game even require players to walk, bike or run for a mile or more in order for the characters to “hatch.” Find out more at pokemon.com.

13. Rock climbing. Indoor climbing gyms are plentiful. It’s another fun family activity that’s a terrific workout, and the skills can transfer to tackling tough hiking trails in the cooler months.

14. Running. 5K races, marathons and half-marathons abound in the Valley this time of year. Courtney Vitch loves to take her 4-year-old daughter to her races. When her daughter was younger, “she rode in the stroller when I ran 5Ks and half-marathons,” Vitch says, adding that her daughter likes getting out of the stroller and running, too.

15. Skating. There are plenty of ice-skating and roller-skating spots in the Valley. This month, there still are a few outdoor ice rinks, including CitySkate in downtown Phoenix. Skating does take some skill, but it’s family fun.

16. Swimming. Swimming is a way to cool down during our hot summers and a great low-impact exercise. Kids always are ready to jump into the pool to play Marco Polo or a game of tag. While the kids are playing — with adequate supervision, of course — adults can jog in the pool, swim laps or just walk in the water.

17. Trampoline parks. This one’s an easy sale for the kids. But don’t simply drop them off; get a one-hour pass for everyone in the family. Jumping works a ton of muscle groups.

18. Tennis. Evening is a great time to unwind with a tennis match or just hitting balls. Lots of families play recreational and competitive tennis. It’s a great lifetime sport that builds cardiovascular endurance and arm and leg muscles.

19. Walking. Don’t underestimate the value of a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Doctors Rastogi and Agarwal agree that any exercise is better than none, and if your only option is to circle the block with your family, take advantage of the wonderful Arizona weather in the evening.

20. Yoga. Kelli Northey uses programs offered at public libraries as an exercise resource, including one class with a baby-yoga component. “It’s fun to practice at home together when we all need to unwind at the end of the day,” she says.

Health numbers to note

Exercise is only part of a person’s health assessment. Adults should also know and understand critical health markers for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Here are recommended ranges to note and to discuss with your doctor in 2017. (Health screenings for blood pressure, vision and hearing should begin at age 3, and cholesterol screenings can begin at age 11 — or younger if there’s a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease).

Blood sugar: Less than 99 for glucose levels.Less than 6 percent for HbA1c (a form of hemoglobin) levels.

Blood pressure: Less than 130/80 (The first number, systolic pressure, measures pressure when your heart beats; the second number, diastolic pressure, measures pressure in your arteries while your heart is relaxed.)

Blood cholesterol: Total cholesterol: Less than 200

Body weight: Body Mass Index of 18.6 – 24.9