How to Get (and Keep) Your Family Fit

Staying fit as a family is super easy—and sustainable—when you make it fun

Real talk: The percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today, roughly 1 in 5 children (ages 6–19) is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And because kids learn behaviors modeled by their parents, it’s crucial to make leading a healthy lifestyle—physical activity and good nutrition—a family affair. Regardless of whether or not weight management is a concern, being active as a family has some seriously compelling benefits: You’ll bond, have more energy and feel better. You may even earn some family bragging rights after crushing your first 5K.

Here are 10 (realistically doable) ways to set your family up for health and fitness success.

1. Sign everyone up for a fun run/race.

Whether it’s a Turkey Trot 5K, a themed fun run or a mud/obstacle race, putting an event on the family calendar will give you a tangible goal. Then schedule family training runs and work on your trash talking. Invite other families to join in the fun and award a winning family for the lowest cumulative finish time (loser buys post-race brunch). A promise: The finish line group shot—with sweaty, smiling faces and medals draped proudly around your necks—will be your new favorite family photo.

2. Incorporate kids in your training.

Especially if you have little ones, this is a key strategy for fitting in your training while not going totally MIA until your marathon/gran fondo/mud run. Invest in a Chariot bike trailer/jogger combo, or let your kids ride their bike next to you during run interval workouts. Maybe you won’t have the laser focus of a kid-free workout, but periodically inviting your kid into your training session will help them feel more connected to your goal and lifestyle. Plus, I like when my son sees his mom crushing a tough workout with a smile on her face.

3. Have fun together in the kitchen.

Make mundane meal prep feel like play by inviting your kids to be a part of the process. Get creative and experimental. Let them choose healthy recipes to test, measure out the ingredients and give them the permission to get a little messy. In my house, there’s a special pride reserved just for the dinner chef. And they won’t even know they’re getting a sneaky lesson in smarter eating.

4. Plant a garden.

Truth: Veggies that you planted, nurtured and watched grow taste better. Want to improve the odds—or frequency—of your kids eating a salad? Let them harvest their own juicy tomatoes and cucumbers, which always taste better than the ones you buy at a supermarket. They’ll learn the value of farm-to-table eating, and you’ll save yourself some green by growing your own organic produce. Win-win!

5. Take a class together.

You can break a sweat together in a family-friendly class at most any YMCA, kid-friendly fitness club, or yoga studio. There’s even a Zumba class for kids. I sometimes do a bootcamp-style group workout at the local park, and a lot of parents bring along their adolescent and teen kids. I’ve seen some pretty heated mother-daughter burpee contests.

6. Get activity trackers.

Have everyone in the family wear a basic FitBit (or similar) activity tracker and let the competitive juices flow. You can use the accompanying app to send taunts and cheers or to compete on a leader board. Establish a fun reward for whoever logs the most steps in a week (e.g. winner gets to pick the title for family movie night) or via a daily step challenge.

7. Join the school run club.

Many elementary and middle schools have running clubs, which are a fantastic way to get kids moving with their friends and classmates. At my kids’ school, you’ll see dozens of children (some joined by a parent) joyfully running laps before the morning bell rings. Last year, many of these kids logged more than 100 miles by the summer break! Don’t have a running club at your school? Create one! Check out Marathon Kids as a starting point.

8. Ditch the sugary sports drinks.

You could fill a kiddie pool with the amount of syrupy sports drink on the sidelines of my kid’s soccer game. There’s a plethora of healthier alternatives to traditional sports drinks—which are loaded with artificial ingredients and sweeteners. My kids like low-sugar Skratch Labs products made from natural ingredients—add the drink powder to a water bottle to taste. They also make candy-like fruit drops that deliver a little energy without all the crud.

9. Ride bikes to school (or part-time jobs).

Or scooter or walk or skate. Bookending the school day with some physical activity is fun, clears the head and is just gratifying (and you’ll avoid those notorious drop-off/pickup lines). Organize the neighborhood kids to bike caravan to and from school twice a week—you’ll enjoy it as much as they do.

10. Rethink the school lunch.

As with healthy eating in general, we make less-than-ideal decisions when we’re tight on time and options. Prepare the next day’s lunch (yours too) the night before so you have enough time to clean and chop fresh fruit/vegetables, and make a healthy sandwich so you can ditch the packaged chips and cookies. Consider reserving some ingredients/leftovers from dinner for school lunches, and instead of packing dinner back in the fridge, dish it into a reusable, portioned-out lunch box. Your morning routine will be a little less hectic, and everyone will eat better.

Julia Beeson Polloreno
The former editor-in-chief of Triathlete magazine for a half-dozen years, Julia Polloreno is a freelance writer and endurance sports nut. She lives in Encinitas, Calif, with her husband and two kids.