Friday, June 22, 2007

Family Challenge Course

Kids home from school and bored? A family challenge course is a great way to get everyone moving, do some team building and encourage support, all while having fun. And it’s a perfect Saturday morning activity to kick off the weekend in an active, healthy way.

First, sit down and brainstorm for ideas. Write down your list of ideas and then tailor the exercises and the order to each family member. Not everyone is going to be good at everything, and that’s the beauty of it. Each family member has an opportunity to succeed, learn and grow, while receiving encouragement from others.

So what should that list include? Aim for activities that combine cardio, strength, and flexibility. Relax, no one’s going for a ten-mile run. These are easy conditioning exercises in short bursts that everyone can do. For example, we always start and end each challenge course with a sun salutation. It’s a great way to get yourself grounded as you prepare to start, and it’s also a good stretch and reward at the end of your course. Other ideas include push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks and skipping rope. Again, remember to design each person’s course to suit his or her skill level. Your teenager might be able to do 50 jumping jacks, but your toddler might only be able to make it to 3. (Or is it the other way around?!) You will get a kick out of your older child rooting on your younger child to finish that third jumping jack, I promise.

You can use every day objects to make your challenge more interesting. How about setting up Mr. Potato Head at one end of the living room and making each person run to him, bend down and touch him, and then run back, say, 10 times in a row. If you really want to up the silliness quotient, add a piece to his face each time you reach him. And make sure everyone gets a big high-five when they complete their laps. You don’t have to be too serious, either. Think of the fun your kids will have watching you hula hoop, crab walk or juggle. Stack up plastic dishes and try to walk from one end of the room to the other without dropping any. Or walk with your kids’ favorite storybook on your head. Possibilities are endless. Look at your kids’ toys and the ideas will come.

Another handy fitness item you might have built into your house is a staircase. We like to do stair laps and stair steps. A lap is one time up and one time down the stairs. You can run up and walk down, or just walk. Be especially mindful that everyone is using caution, particularly little ones. Keep it safe. It’s more about endurance than speed. For stair steps, stand at the base of the stairs. Step onto the bottom stair with your left foot, then your right, then step down with your left and your right. That’s one rep. You might do ten starting on the left and then ten starting on the right. Even your littlest family member can do this. Don’t forget to switch feet.

If the weather’s nice, take it outside, set up an obstacle course on the grass, shoot some baskets, throw football passes, hit a golf ball, or whatever you like to do. Now have everyone try it while pushing a stroller. Don’t be afraid to improvise. You can impose a friendly “penalty” if someone breaks the pattern. My son and I like to go out front and play catch with a football or baseball. If one of us drops the ball after we get a good rally going, we both have to do ten jumping jacks.

Aside from the physical benefits, one of the best things about a family challenge course is that you get to cheer for each other. You don’t have to keep time or make it competitive. Some kids (and adults) do better if they don’t feel that pressure. Some thrive on competition. You know your family best, so just use your judgment. Even if you don’t keep track of time, try to make note of progress. Adjust the components to keep up with each person’s fitness level. If you try to do this challenge course once or twice a week, and you notice that your child has improved from barely able to do five push-ups to cruising through ten with ease, be sure to praise them for their accomplishment. It feels good to hear, “What a strong girl you’re getting to be!” Or, “Wow, look at how much you have improved!”

It may also surprise you to discover how good it feels to hear, “Come on, Mom, just three more push-ups! You can do it!” I think those are about the sweetest words I’ve ever heard.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

TV or Not TV

Some people would have you believe that the root of all evil is that box that sits in nearly every American living room. And in some cases, they might be right. But it doesn’t have to be. Everything in moderation, I always say, and that extends beyond food and beverages.

Especially during the summer months, you may discover that the TV seems to be on as long as someone is awake in your house. If you are concerned that your family is watching too much TV, try limiting it for a while. Assess your family’s situation and set some rules. Ask yourself how many TVs are in your home and do you really need all of them? One rule we set long ago was that there would be no TVs (or computers, or video games) in any bedroom, including the master. My kids are young, but I don’t want them disappearing to their rooms for hours at a time to watch cartoons when we could be doing something together as a family. It sets them up for bad habits later on and there’s no need to head down that path. And although it would be convenient to watch TV in my bedroom in the evening, I know that would lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, and I have to remind myself that I am setting the example for my kids. Only you know what is best for your family? Is an hour a day OK? Two hours? More? Think about what’s best for your family and then try it. We have used a system where the kids get a designated amount of poker chips each week. White chips are a half hour show. Red chips are an hour show. Blue chips are a movie. If they want to watch TV, they need to pay us a chip. We have a yoga video that they may watch for “free” any time they want, and videos that teach morals like the Veggie Tales series are two for one. This system is especially helpful when school is out! When they have to consider giving up a chip or doing something else besides watching TV, it forces them to think about how they’re spending their time.

Another “exception” is sports, but again we use moderation. I moved away from my hometown a few years ago and I love to follow the baseball team I grew up rooting for. But because I’m in a different time zone, games often come on during dinner. So I had to make the tough choice to turn off the TV while we were at the table. Sure, it can be frustrating to miss part of a game, especially when you’re paying for that subscription cable service, but I know that spending time with my family at the dinner table is far more important and rewarding than any ball game I’ll ever watch, and at my age, I’ve watched thousands. Besides, if something really incredible happened when I was away, they’ll show replays of it, either during the broadcast or on SportsCenter anyway. And if not, was it really that important?

TV can provide motivation for you while you are tackling your diet and fitness goals, as well. There are tons of great shows on network and cable stations that can give you tips and ideas for living a healthier life. Check out TLC, Discovery Health, FitTV and other networks for shows that will interest you. If you like reality shows, NBC has The Biggest Loser and even VH1 has Celebrity Fit Club. Watching these can inspire you to make positive changes. Or if it’s convenient, you can watch a show while you hit the treadmill or do your workout. I lift weights and do yoga or crunches in the evening, and I love watching these inspiring shows or—some habits die hard—sports. I’m especially partial to a baseball game or bull riding, but will also watch football, cycling, hockey, or whatever I can find. Watching athletes compete really inspires me to work harder. If I’m really in need of an energy boost, I’ll switch on one of FitTV’s shows like Cardio Blast or All-Star Workouts. Even if I’m not doing the same exercises, I feed off the energy and find the motivation I need to finish strong instead of saying, “Oh, it was a long day. I think I’ll quit early.”

The TV can also provide a built-in pace for your workouts. I wear a pedometer and strive for 10,000 to 12,000 steps each day. If, at the end of the day, I find I’ve come up a bit short, instead of zoning out in front of the TV, I will do “stair laps” during a show. My staircase is right next to the living room, so it’s easy to get some exercise without missing my program. You can walk the stairs, run up and walk down, or add some hand weights to up the intensity. I like to carry a ten-pound dumbbell in each hand to get my heart rate up. You can do these during the entire show, or do “bursts” on the commercials, challenging yourself to do as many laps as possible during the break and then resting in between. Or just do some step ups from the bottom stair, counting out sets of 15 reps starting on each foot. Don’t forget to use the stairs to stretch your calves. See how many crunches you do before your show comes back on or do a wall sit with a stability ball during the commercial break. I also like to do pushups with my hands or feet on the bottom step. This can also be a fun way to break up your routine if it has gotten a little stale.

A word of caution: know your limits. If I'm aimlessly wandering through the channels after the kids have gone to bed, and the only thing that appeals to me is a Food Network special on decadent desserts and I have PMS, I know I have to turn it off and do something else. Even if that means turning in early or reading a book in bed, I know it's better than the binge I'll inevitably start after watching anything that involves chocolate!

TV provides us with information, entertainment and an opportunity to learn. We all need to veg out from time to time to recharge our minds and bodies. But that said, with moderation, TV does not have to be adverse to a healthy lifestyle. You just have to learn how to use it to your advantage.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere

You know you need to drink more water. We all need eight to ten glasses a day. But so many of us don’t care for the taste (or, if you will, non-taste) of water so we skip it in favor of other things. Before you go buy another case of diet soda, take a look in your grocery store’s beverage aisle and see what’s there these days.

An easy to make, low calorie alternative to water is an Italian soda. You may have had one of these in a fancy café. They’re simple to make at home and are especially refreshing on a warm day. In your grocery store’s coffee aisle, you will find flavored syrups. (Torani is the brand I like best, but there are lots of others.) You can also find these in cafés, import stores like Cost Plus, and many other locations. Many of the flavors are available in a sugar free variety. When you get home, fill a glass with ice, then drizzle a little of the flavored syrup over the ice. You may need to experiment before you find the right amount to suit your taste. Now just fill the rest of the glass with club soda. Add a straw and sip away. You can mix it up to combine the flavors or leave it as is, depending on your preference. My kids think this is a special treat and they have no idea that it has virtually no calories and no sugar. Use one flavor or a combination. Chocolate and hazelnut are great together and I get the feeling that I’m indulging when I’m really not. You can combine flavors like raspberry and lime for a refreshing summer cooler. Or take yourself to a faraway place with flavors like coconut, banana, Irish cream … the possibilities are endless.

Another great alternative to plain water is the little packets that you can add to your water bottle and mix on the go. It seems like these are getting more and more popular and you’re bound to find a flavor you like! There are all sorts of special varieties so pick a few to give you enough choices to get through the week.

Many of these contain artificial sweeteners, just like diet sodas, so use them in moderation. I wouldn’t recommend replacing all of your water servings with these, but if you just need to get some variety in your liquid diet to keep you from getting bored, these are great solutions.