Physical 

Family Fitness: How to Stay Active With Your Family

September 18, 2020 8 min read

Young child running outside

Dr. Amanda Anderson, PT, DPT, MS, Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice

At a glance

According to the 2nd Edition of theAmerican Physical Activity Guidelines published in 2018, it is recommended that adults get a cumulative 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Unfortunately, despite the growing body of evidence that physical activity is essential to good health, data from Healthy People 2020 shows that the percentage of adults participating in regular exercise only increased from 43.5% in 2008 to 48.8% in 2011. Similarly, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that only 1 in 3 adults who regularly see a physician have been encouraged to be physically active(1).

Because of this, it is no wonder that children don’t make it a priority to move. Why would they when they don’t see their role models make an effort? If they are not taught that exercise is important at a young age, it is not going to be a priority for them as they get older.

There needs to be more of a focus on family fitness by exercising and living an overall healthy lifestyle as part of a functional unit. Not only will this keep the whole family accountable, but it will keep the family active while spending quality time together and encourage lifelong habits of fitness(2).

Benefits of family fitness

Physical activity in general provides a multitude of health benefits, including prevention of disease, weight control, decreased stress, improved cognitive function at work or school and decreased premature mortality, among many other benefits(3).

Exercising and eating well as a family unit also can be very motivating. Not only are you acting as a role model for your children, but this can serve as additional motivation and accountability for you to stick with your exercise and/or nutrition plan. If your kids are expecting to go with you on your evening walk or accompany you to the gym at a set time each day, you will be more likely to go.

Ultimately, it is a bonding experience. You can share meal prep tips, commiserate about the hard workout you did together that morning, or just simply enjoy the quality time you’re spending together.

How to make a family fitness plan

Getting a family to exercise and eat together, especially as the children get older, is a huge feat. It’s no small task to get yourself ready for the day, make sure the kids get to school on time, carve out time for yourself to exercise and also make sure all of your chauffeur duties are covered so the kids can get to their extracurriculars on time.

The biggest thing to keep in mind when starting a family fitness plan is it can’t be complicated! Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. In order to build lifelong habits, the changes that you make to incorporate more movement into your everyday life need to be doable and able to fit into the routine you currently already have in your household.

Determine your goals

What are you trying to change? Are you trying to lose weight? Have you noticed that your kids have been spending too much time sitting inside on their summer break playing video games or watching TV? Are the activities that you typically do together as a family more sedentary versus active? Does your child want to play a new sport in the fall and now needs to get in shape for it? Make sure your goals are specific and measurable so you can know if you’re making a change.

For example, “I will exercise more” is not a good goal. You have no measurable standard to see if you’ve improved.

A better example of a good goal would be “I will walk five times per week for at least 30 minutes each without taking a rest break,” because there is a time factor and you will know when you’ve met your goal.

Track your progress

Depending on the age of your kids, technology may be a very helpful tool to help you see what kinds of changes you’ve made in order to meet your goals.

Woman checking fitness tracker on her wrist

Document it

For example, a Google document that the whole family has access to might be a helpful way to hold each member of the family accountable for completing daily workouts, moving every hour or recording meals and snacks throughout the day. It also can be a good way to schedule family outings or fitness classes and make sure everyone shows up on time!

If you’re more likely to keep track of your progress on paper, you can use a free printableworkout log,food log, orweight loss log available in multiple formats to track your progress and keep yourself accountable.

Incorporate technology

Similarly, maybe you get the whole family a Fitbit or an Apple watch to track activity during the day, including workouts, steps and sleep quality. A new fitness tool on the market calledWhoop is another new option. It includes recovery information to help you determine when you are overextending yourself and when a rest day may be necessary.

There are also apps, like MyFitnessPal or Strava that you can use to track daily food intake and macronutrients and different exercises, like walking, jogging, biking or swimming distances. These apps can also be very helpful in formulating doable movement or nutrition goals for you and your family.

Remember ‘exercise’ doesn’t have to be a planned event

Sometimes, especially on the weekends, exercise doesn’t need to be tracked, timed or recorded. Moving for the sake of movement can be enough!

Play a game of tag in the park. Pretend that you’re a horse and let your smaller kids ride along on your back. Go play a game of laser tag on a rainy day. Go ice skating or rollerblading. Pack up a picnic and go look for crawfish in the creek near your house.

During the week or when you may struggle to fit exercise into your daily routine, take the stairs instead of the elevator at work. Go for a walk around the block at lunchtime. Every time you get up from the chair at work, sit down again and stand up 10 times in a row. Park far away from the entrance to the grocery store and don’t let your kids ride in the cart once you’re in the store (depending on their age!).

If your children see you making these conscious decisions to move, they will carry that with them as they grow up and will eventually make their own healthy choices.

Make sure the kids have a say!

Depending on how old your children are, it is important to keep them involved and let them make suggestions to get their buy-in, whether they’re 7 or 17.

Ask them what types of healthy snacks they would like to see in their lunches at school.

Show them a list of fitness classes at your local gym or rec center and get their opinion on which classes they would be most interested in trying then schedule a date and time as a family to go together.

While it is not necessary to get your kids involved in team sports if they don’t have any interest, see what types of sports they might be interested in playing and sign them up for several over the course of a few years to see which ones they like best.

See if they would be interested in trying dance classes or Boy/Girl Scouts and get them involved in an activity that way.

Maybe your child isn’t cut out for some of the more “standard” sports or activities; see if they would be interested in some of theseunusual sports. It might even be something fun for the parents to try or get involved with!

Age-appropriate activity

As your child gets older, not only will his or her interests change, but exercise requirements will change as well. It is important to remember that children are not “little adults.” Their movement patterns and structure will be different and this needs to be recognized when thinking about exercise and play.

Preschool-aged children

Children ages three to five require activity throughout the day in order to promote appropriate growth and development. Children in this age group should be encouraged to participate in a variety of activities(4).

Here some are additional ideas forphysical activity for preschoolers.

List of activities for preschool-aged children

School-aged children and adolescents

Children and adolescents 6 to 17 years old should participate in 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. The activities selected are broken up into three distinct categories:

  • Aerobic: This will be most of the 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity. There should be vigorous activity at least three days per week.
  • Muscle-strengthening: As part of the daily 60 minutes of activity, muscle strengthening should be included at least three days per week.
  • Bone-strengthening: As part of the daily 60 minutes of activity, muscle strengthening should be included at least three days per week(5).

Here are some additional ideas forphysical activity for school-aged children andadolescents/teens.

Activities and fitness ideas for school-aged childrenPhysical activities for adolescents

Table 1. Examples of Aerobic, Muscle-, and Bone-Strengthening Physical Activities for Children and Adolescents.


Don’t underestimate the power of the kitchen and sleep!

It is important to keep in mind that in order to lose or maintain your current weight, your intake MUST be less than your output. If you are consistently eating more than you need, no matter how much you exercise, you will not lose weight.

While your goal may not be weight loss, it is important to remember for adequate nutrition and rest are imperative to a healthy lifestyle. If you’re having trouble finishing your workouts or feel too tired to go for your nightly walk, maybe it is time to re-evaluate what you are putting in your body and what timeyou’re going to bed each night.

Without adequate tools like a proper diet and rest, it will take your body much longer to adapt to the new movement goals you are placing on it.

In summary

There are going to be barriers to starting a new lifestyle and that is okay! It is all about trial and error and figuring out what works best for your family’s particular needs. You may not succeed in your newfound endeavors right away and with proper research, time, and patience, you will end up where you want to be.

  • Make sure you are developing specific and measurable goals related to what you hope to accomplish by changing your lifestyle.
  • Have an idea about how you are going to track those goals and know if you are making progress or if you need to reevaluate your goals.
  • Remember that not all exercise has to be planned and documented to count. Sometimes part of the fun is a spontaneous dance party or a surprise family trip to the bowling lanes!
  • Keep your kiddos involved! If you want them to stay motivated and engaged, they need to be part of the decision-making process. Ask them what family activity you should do that weekend or take them to the grocery store and have them help you gather all the ingredients and help cook your weekly sit-down family meal.
  • Keep in mind that age-appropriate activities are important for normal growth and development and use that information when planning outings, activities, and trips.

Don’t forget that a lifestyle change is more of a marathon and not a sprint. Start with small goals, like adding a walk around the block at lunch or going for a nightly family walk, and build your way up from there. Fitness and a healthy lifestyle don’t have to be chores. With the people you love, it should be a rewarding experience with the added bonus of building lifelong healthy habits.