One More Mile and the Cookie’s History!

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Establishing Healthy Habits in Kids is No Easy Task

But it’s more important than ever, considering the gamut of health problems caused by inactivity – from poor mental and emotional resilience to disabling and fatal diseases.

Like other families, we’re constantly challenged to stay active. How do we encourage kids to make a habit of integrating movement into daily life, a basic skill that affects so many aspects of mental, emotional and physical well-being? It’s an exercise in creativity to make physical activity routine, while at the same time creating memories and strengthening our relationship with them.

And how do you make that habit stick?

While we love organized sports (Keith played Division III basketball and we met playing beach volleyball), it’s a significant commitment. The kids are age-segregated so won’t be in the same camp time/day. This increases the time, effort and expense of shuttling them to practices/games that are on fixed schedules. Did I mention the expense? There are so many points in this chain where our motivation can break no matter how we prioritize it.

For economy of effort, we focused on making the little things count. And we looked at running as a cost-effective and convenient activity (doable anywhere and anytime) that draws several goals together for us as a family.

Here’s our ongoing journey, from the daily efforts to running in NYC’s Bronx Zoo Run for the Wild 5K to developing a homeschool curriculum around the lessons we learn along the way.

Motivating the Kids to Get Active and Run With Me

  • Make the little things count. After moving to NYC, we found that a stroller is more trouble than it’s worth. So we ditched ours. Elevators, escalators, and rush hour transport are crowded and slow, so we walk or use the stairs as the kids can manage. Routes have gotten progressively longer, and to break up a distance we create stories, play games or stop at a playground. With the kids becoming older and stronger, weaving through crowds or racing us to the landing has become a game. As a side note, this eats up time, but the mundane can make for meaningful moments.
  • Model the behavior. An opportunity to game up came when compounding stressors had me pounding the pavement. Morning after morning of going out for a run got my daughter intrigued. We looked for creative ways to introduce running to them.
  • Reward the effort. At first, it was just my 6-year-old doing an occasional two-mile run/walk with me. We’d stop at a bakery near home for a treat – just us two. That piqued my 8-year-old son’s interest.
  • Introduce adventure. He was a harder sell. The fun factor wasn’t evident. When a friend suggested the Bronx Zoo 5K, I jumped at the chance because he loves animals. Another idea for the future can be a team obstacle race like Tough Mudder, to do as a family or with their cousins or friends – the bonding element and memories are built-in.
  • Run with a group. Peers help in boosting motivation. Luckily there are plenty of family- and kid-friendly running events nearby. We signed up for a 5K Cookie Run.
  • Make it competitive. If it’s just us, cooperation can be less than ideal. But they love to outdo each other, so we play that up. “The first person to that lamp post wins!” “Who can spot the most types of birds on the trail?” “Whoever keeps pace with me for 10 minutes gets a treat!”
  • Pack small pick-me-up treats. Snacks they don’t get often are nice for countering one of (many) common tactics – “I’m hungry.” We pack fruit roll-ups, snickers or chocolate (in cold weather), special granola bars, etc.
  • Build activity into birthdays and events. Climbing walls, running clubs, and coaches can provide party ideas. Our climbing gym and running clubs have programs to encourage youth to take up the activity; coaches facilitate games for a 1-2 hour event. They’re made affordable to build interest and clientele. Egg hunts, Halloween parties, scavenger adventures, and more present opportunities for sport.

Small Things Add Up to a Big Impact

We’re a homeschooling family, and the lesson plan opportunities were quickly apparent. The kids weren’t new to the notion of staying active or running, but the big picture – or the intersection of exercise, fitness, health, and nutrition – is. There were also the educational aspects of fundraising, along with the idea of zoos and how they support conservation.

Going back to my running, successive injuries plagued me. These were likely due to years of inactivity. Turned out they were secondary effects of accommodations my body made to take the stress off a weak muscle on the other leg.

That became Lesson Plan 1. The human body is a lean, mean, adaptive machine. My injuries made quick evidence of a sedentary professional life. Muscles used regularly grow and strengthen, while muscles that aren’t atrophy. With everything connected in the kinetic chain, the posture tendencies I developed – shoulders rolling, weak core, tight calves from years of heels – translated into poor biomechanics, especially in running where muscles and joints absorb repetitive stress. Investigating the root cause possibly headed off a bigger injury that would need a specialist. It led me to start strengthening and mobility exercises.

To make it practical, we discussed how the kids start hunching over or feel stiff after playing video games for a stretch. What if they sat at a computer for hours on end, days at a time, for decades? What can happen when they switch up muscles for a sport or fire a stiff calf to avoid collision with a bike?

Lesson 2 – Training plan. While the kids can easily manage a 5k, we introduced the idea of planning for an event or establishing and reaching a goal. On every weekend leading up to the race we “trained” by joining a group run or hitting one of the trails around Manhattan. Even with initial grumbling, there was eventual interest and chance highlights, like coming across a nice couple out birdwatching when we cut through some bramble. They shared seeds for the kids to feed the birds.

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Chance but meaningful moments happen on the long way home – like feeding chickadees and tufted titmouse.

Lesson 3 weaved together the different concepts we were working with:

  • Why is running (or other activity) good for you?
  • What happens in your body when you run?
  • Describe exercise and why it’s important.
  • Talk about the relationship between running and exercise and fitness.
  • Explain the connection between nutrition (energy in) and exercise (energy out).
  • How do exercise, fitness and good nutrition lead to better health?

Lesson 4 was a debate. The Bronx Zoo Run for the Wild 5k involved raising funds to support the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). While I’m not a fan of the polarity, it’s a good debate topic. Zoos have come a long way in terms of treatment of animals, their role in wildlife and biodiversity hotspot conservation, and their effectiveness as an advocacy and educational channel. Without preparation, each child got a side of the issue to talk about. Both raised good points on whether zoos were good or bad.

Lesson 5 covered fundraising for a cause. Local policies have a global impact which in turn influence their lives. How do countries like the US, where we don’t have giraffes, affect these animals (the theme of this year’s 5K)? What does it mean to care about a cause? We also explored the popularity of giraffes and pandas as opposed to more obscure species like axolotls or blobfish that are similarly threatened.

The Best Pace Scenario on Race Day

With over 5,000 runners at this year’s 5K, we lost track of each other. I stayed with our daughter who developed a stitch in her side and walked half of it. Keith ran with our son who surprised us by getting caught up in the excitement and sustaining a good pace for most of the race. Not bad for being less than thrilled at the idea of this 5k! He slowed down through the new exhibits, but overall his competitive spirit kicked in as he hustled alongside everyone towards the finish.

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This was not the race to set your PR (personal record), but it was a fun run. Zebras were in the first part of the route.
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Our daughter found a reserve of energy to power through that finish line.
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Our son had a great race and was very proud of himself. He got his face painted afterward.

Lesson 6 is a work in progress since these aren’t easily digestible or tangible concepts for young minds. Continually seeking opportunities to move and doing the 5K together lead up to the idea of corollary and cumulative effects. There is a compounding value to exercise:

  • Decelerates the aging process
  • Promotes attractiveness. Any experience in career/life coaching or public speaking? Having a physical regimen increases confidence and self-esteem, influencing the impressions made on people and affecting performance. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.
  • Fights inflammation, boosting the immune system and helping prevent cancer
  • Profoundly impacts our biochemistry:
    • Enhances cognitive functions
    • Fortifies emotional resilience
  • Makes bones dense and muscles strong:
    • Improves coordination, balance, mobility, and flexibility
    • Helps maintain good posture
    • Minimizes orthopedic issues, like shoulder and back pain
  • Keeps clinical endpoints like weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol in a healthy range
  • The benefits are too numerous to list!

Playing the Long Game

Our quality of life is a high price to pay for inactivity. Pharmacologizing and medicalizing accomplish only so much and at a high cost to individual and society. As parents, our work is cut out for us:

  • Despite direct links to brainpower, efficiency, and productivity, many cultures perceive making time for exercise as a luxury or indulgence. Ironic, huh?
  • Technology is moving us rapidly towards more cerebral work, at the expense of the physical fitness that our biological systems depend on to function properly. This sedentariness is at the root of tremendous spikes in all-cause morbidity, premature aging and mortality, e.g., higher risks of cognitive disorders, physical dysfunction, cancers, and heart and bone diseases.
  • It doesn’t help that western health care is curative and disease-oriented. (The 2010 Affordable Care Act legislated industry shifts in focus on primary care and prevention, but the practical impact will take a long time. And thankfully holistic approaches such as meditation and yoga from eastern philosophies are gaining popularity).
  • Companies market convenience goods and entertainment so well we are convinced we need them. Meanwhile, these products promote inactivity and glue us to screens.
  • Add the ripple effects of market protections (e.g., US agriculture policy), which flood shelves with unhealthy food options that make people sluggish.
  • The list of factors unhelpful to public health interests goes on and on.
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Reward the effort! The kids requested burgers so we put some on the grill (don’t forget to sneak some greens in!).

Even with a compelling wealth of evidence, more of our own efforts at modeling healthy habits fail than not. So it’s even tougher to help our kids understand the system that impacts their choices and the long game that is their mental, emotional and physical health and well-being. This makes every effort count because the human mind and body are capable of amazing things when it’s in the best condition it can be. The healthiest life attainable is our goal.

In the meantime, chocolate chip cookies just came out of the oven. So I’m off to grab one with some whiskey – my reward for this morning’s run!

Thanks for reading! Your feedback, questions or thoughts on things that work (or don’t) for your family may be helpful to ours and others, so please leave them in the comments below. Good luck!

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Nathalie Abejero is a wife, mother and public health professional now based in NYC. She loves the early mornings and cold winter runs at dawn. On travels you'll find her hopping local buses to anywhere, checking out wet markets and street food, and catching sunrises from the birding spots. Professionally, her experience is in quality improvement methods, having worked on projects tackling health systems reform and strengthening (13+ yrs in SE Asia, 3+ yrs in NYC).

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