Early on, when my kids were young, I had a two-seat sport stroller that I could push them in while I went running. I could also tow them in it behind my bike. It was great, until my daughter realized she could whale the tar out of her older brother and there was no way for him to escape. And that was the end of that. Screams of terror ruin the Zen of exercise.
But while children can complicate the exercise lifestyle, thankfully it's a phase they'll grow out of.
And by the time they hit 9 or 10, there are more ways to get them exercising alongside you.
"When children see you exercising, they mirror what you do," Dr. Teri McCambridge, director of sports medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, told me. Working out by yourself is fine, but she extols the virtues of making fitness a family affair. "If they see you get pleasure from it, then they will as well. Obesity is a big problem in society, and this is helpful for both adults and children."
But mine still aren't capable of keeping up with their old man. Intensity is problematic when you're the parent of a 13- and a 10-year-old, and I'm not a guy who likes to wait for anyone. Just ask my wife what it's like to go skiing with me.
Still, I need to do that "quality time" thing and set a good example, and I have found solutions. Behold!
Most important: Know kids don't want to exercise. They want to have fun. Getting side-by-side elliptical trainers isn't going to work. Going out to play will.
I'm a fan of running. It's not that expensive, has tremendous health benefits, leads to positive changes in body composition and can be done almost anywhere. I've trained hard and can go far and fast, yet I still can't hope to keep up with my kids when they're on their bikes.
And that's OK; it makes it fun for them. We head out with instructions for them to stop occasionally and allow me to catch up. They think it's hilarious to sprint down the path and leave me in their dust. Then they take a break, throw some rocks in the river, climb a tree or search for four-leaf clovers. Then I arrive and we repeat. Since I can run several miles, they're feeling pretty done-for by the end, and so am I. My wife will often join us either on in-line skates or a bike.
Several years ago, I bought a two-seat open-water kayak and christened it "The Marriage Saver." Our marriage wasn't in trouble, but it would have been if we had two single-seat boats. My wife's not slow; I'm just kind of … nuts. Again, when I'm exercising I really don't like to hold back. The two-seater allows my wife to paddle at her own pace and rest when she likes, and it works just as well when a kid is aboard.
Pretty soon we're going to buy a second two-seater, and my older and stronger son will paddle with his mom, and my younger daughter will go with me. We should be pretty evenly matched that way. Canoes work for this too.
I think karate is another great idea. I don't do it, but my wife and both my kids do. (My wife has a black belt, so I'm hoping she doesn't take offense at that marriage saver comment.) My son is one belt level below her and my daughter one below that. They've been at it for years in a family-oriented dojo that allows parents and kids to take classes alongside each other. I think martial arts are a fantastic choice for kids, because they merge anaerobic and aerobic exercise to develop both strength and endurance, plus flexibility, discipline and a useful defensive skill that I hope they never have to use.
And beyond physical fitness, sports such as karate instill mental toughness and a can-do attitude in young kids.
"It develops a feeling of success, empowerment and self-confidence in children," said David Jones of Calgary, a 7th degree black belt who has taught karate for 34 years and developed many international champions. The complexity and rigor of karate movement help enhance a child's mental capabilities, Jones told me.
It's a testament to my desire to spend time with my children that I have gone rock climbing with them despite being a nervous wreck about heights. This sport is hard, and I think most kids leave their parents in the dust. Of course, I have a lot more body weight to haul up the climbing wall, but I'm convinced my daughter is hiding a prehensile tail.
This is yet another activity that allows me to keep the intensity up while kids get their fun. I'm not talking about lengths in a pool, but taking them to a water park, lake or ocean. At the wave pool recently I swam laps while I watched my children swing from a rope into the water and do the slide again and again. I've done laps around docks that they were jumping off, and even going snorkeling with my son and daughter allows me to cover extra territory by repeatedly swimming down to the bottom and back up.
Another thing I want to give a plug for is weight lifting. Last year I wrote two columns on the subject of kids lifting weights, busting the myth about its stunting their growth while showing that it has protective and performance enhancing effects for other sports with low risk of injury. What's more, it's an excellent choice for overweight kids who may hate aerobic exercise, because they are often stronger than their leaner peers. Lifting provides an ego boost that engenders positive attitudes about exercise.
I train both my kids in my home gym, but public facilities such as the YMCA will often have weight lifting programs that start as early as age 8. Once they hit 12, many gyms will allow them to work out with parental supervision (they may want you to take a course first), and I can speak from experience that there is much family bonding to be had over lifting heavy things and putting them back down.
To add to these suggestions, there are any number of sports that allow for parents and children to select their own level of intensity yet still play together. Kicking around a soccer ball, shooting hoops, tossing a football or Frisbee all allow for selective exertion. I especially like Frisbee because my kids don't have the best aim and I have to run pretty fast to catch some of the throws.
Or, you can play hacky sack and everyone can be equally terrible.
Finally, if you trust your kids with sharp implements on their feet, there is always ice skating. Nothing wrong with lapping them.
James Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.