Step to it: fit families

Could you fit a little more fitness into your day? We asked three ordinary Canadian families to take up that challenge – and their results will surprise and inspire you

On your mark, get set, go!

The alarm clock rings and your family is off and running to work, school, daycare. You opt for the stairs at work, walk to the ATM at lunch, then rush home to drive your kids to soccer and swimming, while hubby heads out with the dog. Everyone seems active enough…

But are they? Not likely. A large study shows that only nine percent of children aged five to 19 are meeting the goals set out in Canada’s Physical Activity Guides. And even our perceptions of how much our kids exercise fall short. “Nearly all parents report that their children are very physically active,” notes the 2007 Report Card from Active Healthy Kids Canada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children’s fitness. In reality, however, fewer than half “are active enough to ensure healthy growth and development.”

So Today’s Parent asked my family and two others to measure our activity levels, wearing pedometers to count our steps while walking or running, and using equivalency charts to track our progress when doing other activities. (Who knew that a half-hour of mini-golf counts as 2,730 steps?) The kids aimed to get in 16,500 steps a day; the adults, 10,000. These figures are roughly equivalent to the recommended amount of daily activity outlined in Canada’s Physical Activity Guides.

After a week, we passed our “scores” to Jason Weber, a certified exercise physiologist who trains professional athletes and designs fitness programs for elementary schools and individuals at the University of Saskatchewan’s Human Performance Centre. Weber didn’t give us a pass or fail, but he did provide suggestions on how we could do better. Then we clipped on the pedometers for a second week as we tried to improve our scores. Read on to find out how each of us fared — and pick up some ideas to get your family moving more often.

Family #1: Sara Bedal, 48, and Ronen Grunberg, 49
Parents to Meaghan, 11. Aurora, Ontario

Curiosity (and a dash of angst on my part) compelled us to take up this challenge. Our daughter, Meaghan, who takes a bus to school, had recently swapped her one organized activity — synchronized swimming — for the lower physical demands of musical theatre, and I’m all too aware that girls’ activity levels, in particular, tend to slump as they get older. Ronen, a high school teacher, is on his feet most days after an hour-long commute, while I simply climb a set of stairs to go to work as a freelance writer and editor. Come the weekend, I’m eager to get out of the house with Meaghan — whether it’s cycling on a nature trail in summer or hitting the toboggan hill in winter. Ronen prefers to chill out at home after a hectic week.

Week 1: It was tough to ignore the pedometers clipped to our waistbands and pretend this was a “normal” week. Ronen found himself walking to the video store instead of driving, and I was impressed when I racked up the equivalent of 3,200 steps after 15 minutes of swimming laps. The real eye-opener? Meaghan was lucky if she made it to 6,000 steps on weekdays when she didn’t have phys. ed.

Our prescription: “Don’t try to fix everything in a hurry,” Weber advised. Small moves, such as a family walk after supper, can amount to lasting changes. On weekdays, when the nearby nature trail is virtually deserted, he suggested I recruit a friend to walk with me. When Ronen marks papers in the evening, he could take a break from work to climb up and down the stairs for five minutes to get his heart pumping.

Week 2: Gains all around. Ronen found that jogging on the spot whenever he had a spare moment, as well as adding walks after work and on weekends, did the trick for him. Meaghan and I invited a friend and doubled the fun — and our activity level — with a skate at our local rink after school. When the weather nixed outdoor plans, we plunked an exercise video in the VCR, and headed to the local trampoline gym for a public jumping session.

What they learned: Wearing pedometers sparked our competitive spirit and spurred us on. More importantly, we learned that accumulating enough daily steps for an active, healthy lifestyle was — with a reasonable amount of sweat equity — within our grasp.

Family #2: Teresa Budd, 37, and Steve Budd, 40
Parents to Keira, 3, and Alexa, 1. North Vancouver

Teresa Budd chuckles when she says her family doesn’t fit the active “west coast” stereotype. Before kids, this goal-driven lawyer trained as a marathon runner. But now, there just aren’t enough hours in the week to fit in any regular exercise. “I am sleep-deprived enough,” she says. Up at 6 a.m. each weekday, Teresa attends work-related functions three to four evenings a month, and may plow through work from the office once her girls are in bed at 8:30 p.m. Her best try is to do some push-ups and sit-ups while watching TV. Steve, an orthodontist, squeezes in a 20- to 25-minute run several times a week, and both Steve and Teresa walk the family’s mini-dachshund daily. Older daughter Keira takes swimming, ballet and a music class that gets her dancing, plus she walks to preschool with baby sister Alexa and their nanny.

Week 1: Keira’s and Steve’s averages don’t tell the entire story. Based on all of her activities, Weber says Keira “is doing great — one very active three-year-old.” But, he adds, a pedometer may not be the best tool to measure a preschooler’s activity levels. (There isn’t much scientific data on the use of pedometers by children younger than six. And, anyway, the target of 16,500 daily steps applies to kids six and up.) And even though Steve ran four days this week, his step count consistently fell below 9,000 because his running stride is significantly longer than his walking stride, so he took fewer steps to cover the same distance. Teresa, who had just returned to work after mat leave, nearly hit 10,000 steps after a lengthy Sunday walk on nearby trails.

Their prescription: With Teresa’s time constraints, she should set a goal that’s almost immediately achievable — maybe aiming for an additional 1,000 steps a day to start. Parking farther from her destination, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking the dog an extra block all add up. As for something more structured, Teresa needs to find out what will catch and maintain her interest. “That’s going to come through trial and error,” Weber says. “Maybe it’s a 20-minute yoga video to start.” When she’s comfortable with that, she could switch to a strength-building or cardio-training video. Steve hopes to gradually lengthen his runs so that he’ll be running 10 kilometres by summer.

Week 2: All three succeeded in boosting their average number of steps. Teresa purposely parked on a lower level at work so she was forced to take the stairs. She also chose a longer route to grab lunch and walked around the office more. Steve added five minutes to his run.

What they learned: “I shouldn’t be so hard on myself,” says Teresa. “I take more steps than I thought I did, given that I basically sit in an office all day.” But, she adds, “of course I can do much better. It doesn’t take much to get a few extra steps in.”

Family #3: Kim Herperger, 41, and Steven Herperger, 42
Parents to Keegan, 11, and Bryn, 8. Regina

Keegan and Bryn Herperger are uncommonly active kids. They snowboard and play hockey in the winter, and walk to school and take swimming lessons. Still, screen games and television increasingly compete for their time, says their mom, Kim, a self-employed communications consultant, who crams in most of her work during school hours. She bowls with a bowling league once a week, usually walks the dog and works out on the family’s ski machine when she has half an hour. Steven, who is an IT manager, cycles to and from work in the summer, visits the gym at lunch three times a week and coaches kids’ hockey.

Week 1: “Phenomenal,” says Weber of the Herpergers’ trial week. Both Keegan’s and Bryn’s steps skyrocketed on the days they played hockey, while Steven consistently surpassed 15,000 steps Monday through Friday. Kim logged between 5,400 and 10,000 steps simply from the daily demands of work, family and walking the dog, and boosted her totals by hitting the bowling alley and the ski machine four of the days.

Their prescription: While the Herpergers breeze past the recommended step counts most days, Weber has a few ideas for helping them hit their targets on slower days too. Kim should look for and seize spontaneous moments to be active. If she’s at hockey practice with the boys, for instance, she might try to fit in a power walk up and down the length of the ice. “Find those times when you can multi-task,” Weber advises. For Steven, whose step counts dropped on the weekend, he suggests incorporating different types of activities; walking the dog or swimming with the family would complement his structured workout on the elliptical trainer and weightlifting.

Week 2: With extreme weather scuttling outdoor fun, most of the family’s averages actually decreased. Bryn and Keegan stayed inside for recess, the dog didn’t get walked, and two evenings of heavy homework cut into activity time. Even the family’s Friday night bowling plans were nixed when no lanes were available. (Tip: Always have a Plan B, Weber advises.) But these high achievers still inspire. Steven boosted his weekend scores, thanks in part to an hour of housework (equivalent to about 5,500 steps).

What they learned: Unlike the majority of Canadian parents, Kim underestimated her kids’ exercise levels. “I guess the boys were more active than I thought, especially that first week,” she says. “You tend to focus on the idea that they’re playing video games too much and maybe don’t notice enough of the other things they’re doing.” And younger son Bryn picked up a new goal: To “walk” across Canada by tracking his steps online. (StepsCount pedometers come with a registration code that allows you to record your steps and track your progress online. Log on to stepscount.com for more info.)

Try this where you live

Looking for fun and creative ways to get moving? Here’s how communities across the country are turning up the heat on physical activity.

After-school innovation Ardrossan, Alberta
Ferrying kids to and from activities can be a bit of a challenge in this rural community, where some parents work out of town in Fort McMurray’s oil sands for 10 days at a time. So it was a huge help when the parent council at Uncas Elementary School launched a program that takes students to swim lessons, gymnastics and downhill or cross-country skiing. A bus picks up kids and a parent volunteers after school, and returns before dinner. Individual families pay for their children’s weekly activities, plus a portion of the busing fee.

Walking the talk Deep River, Ontario
More than 275 new mothers, school-aged kids, teen volunteers, seniors and others Get W.I.T.H. It! by participating in a free walking program at Mackenzie High School. (W.I.T.H. stands for “Walk In The Halls.”) It runs two evenings a week from October to March in this town of 4,200, where there’s no indoor track, no mall and few sidewalks. Walkers have their choice of a mild, moderate or intense route, and can measure their progress with loaner pedometers provided by a local business. (Want to launch a similar program in your area? Get a kit from StepsCount by calling 1-866-342-2328 or email info@stepscount.com.)

Wiggling and giggling allowed Maple Ridge, British Columbia
Fitness is a way of life at Harry Hooge Elementary School, where trained students lead aerobic sessions at biweekly assemblies, and classroom “action” bins filled with skipping ropes, hand grippers and more make it easy for teachers to weave daily physical activity into the timetable. Students also experiment with balance balls — as chairs — in the computer lab. “This allows them to get a workout while just sitting, as they use their core muscles to stay balanced,” says grade-six teacher Lorna Harmston.

Incredible journey Ingonish, NS, and Dingwall, Nova Scotia
Students at Cape Smokey and North Highlands elementary schools are walking across the country and back — on paper, anyway. To contribute to this journey of more than 16 million steps, kids report their pedometer readings after gym period and lunchtime intramurals, and their progress is plotted on a map of Canada. It’s no small feat, considering there are only 226 students between the two rural schools. (Several staff members track their steps also, competing in school-to-school challenges.) Phys. ed teacher Joe MacNeil introduced the pedometers four years ago and says they’re the “best motivational tool” he’s used in 32 years of teaching.

Quiz!

How fit is your family? Take it here!

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