Family Fitness Begins with Walks

I happen to think that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children (besides a home, an education, and a loving family) is the joy of movement and a love of nature. This isn’t just some ideological BS that I came up with because I’m a tree hugging nerd (I am), but is actually based on what we evolved to need in order to be healthy.

Let’s take a short detour down the human evolution path to explain what I mean:

Research by anthropologist David Raichlen and psychologist Gene Alexander has shown a relationship between the brain and aerobic physical activity in multiple species. In humans, it is thought that our evolution as endurance based hunter gatherers had a direct effect on our brain size and cognitive function. This is based on the observation that brain size increased dramatically in parallel with dramatic increases in our activity level.[12]

Think about it this way, foraging and hunting require a great deal of mental engagement with the environment; planning, mapping, and the ability to travel far distances. In short, the demands of our hunter gatherer lifestyle gifted us with big brains and a high work capacity. In order for our bodies and brains to function optimally (and not atrophy), we need regular physical activity that is mentally stimulating.[13]

Continuing on that idea, hunting and gathering outdoors with all the complexity of nature around us is incredibly stimulating. As a result, simply exercising outdoors has been shown to have far more positive effects on health and mental wellness than exercising indoors.[14]

Simply being exposed to nature has been associated with better health outcomes, less impulsivity and hyperactivity behaviors, lower stress hormones, higher perceived quality of life, and better decision making. There are some complex reasons for this, but at the root may simply be the fact that being outside can greatly increase our spatial perception, ie where we are relative to other things. In other words, getting some visual perspective may improve our mental perspective.[15] You can honestly say the idea that going for a walk outside can help us think through our problems more effectively is actually based in science.

To summarize, we evolved to need lots of movement and being outdoors makes our brains (and therefore emotions/thinking/problem-solving) function better. So, back to family fitness.

I have a lot of families ask me to train their kids. I love working with kids, it can be very rewarding to show a young person how strong, able, and athletic they can be simply by learning how to move correctly. But nothing I do is magic. I just pay attention and offer some insight and correction. Training your own kids can be tough, mine don’t like to listen to me either, but the biggest mistake I see parents making is that they completely skip over the most important aspect of training: developing a fitness base.

A fitness base simply means the ability to go out and move, all day, without fatiguing. I’m not talking about sports or manual labor here, I’m talking about going about your daily tasks, your daily play, and not really thinking about needing to sit on the couch and binge netflix or read a book all day. Remember being a kid? For Gen-Xers like me, childhood was spent mostly outdoors, running through the woods (or local parks), riding our bikes, playing ball in the street, catching frogs, playing tag, building forts, etc. until we were called inside for a meal or for bedtime. Just low to moderate level activity all day.

Kids don’t do a lot of that anymore. They are driven around to various sports practices, some more than others. While its good that they are getting exercise, a lot of the kids have trained over the years have some common deficiencies. They lack good posture, postural strength and endurance (the ability to main good posture over time), and they lack stamina for long duration training sessions. Its not a difficult thing to fix, they just need to move well and move more. Walking is a great solution.

Going for walks is incredible for building a fitness base. It strengthens your legs and postural muscles and develops endurance and positive cardiovascular adaptations. It is an easy movement that is not likely to cause injury and can be sustained for long periods of time. Kids who can walk long distances find it easier to run, bike, swim, and resist fatigue while sitting in a classroom all day. Most importantly, engaging in regular movement removes the stigma of thinking of movement as a negative thing or avoiding it because its unpleasant.

Whether your kids play sports or lift weights, regular walks are still a great way to supplement their overall fitness, destress, and provide an opportunity to quiet their minds. It can also be a great opportunity for parents and kids to connect.

A lot of kids will go through a period of growth between elementary school and high school where they will put on a lot of excess weight and/or grow several inches or feet. When this happens, moving can feel awkward and unpleasant no matter how much they were used to doing previously. I’ve trained a good number of these kids and I can honestly say that the best way to get them through it is to just keep them moving in any way you can. They will eventually grow out of it and their abilities will improve almost overnight. But only if you keep them moving.

So, whether you live in the country, the suburbs, or the city, think about how often you are out walking with your kids. Maybe you walk them to school every day, maybe you have a park nearby where you could do a weekly hike, maybe you have a walkable neighborhood and could go for a 15 minute walk after dinner most days.

If we don’t teach our kids to move regularly, we are teaching them to be sedentary. Changing these habits as adults is far more difficult and without the fitness base of an active childhood, can be extremely unpleasant. People in general often underestimate how long it takes our bodies to adapt to regular movement so let me give you a straight answer: it takes years. Be patient and invest the time. You will not only be investing in your children’s health for their future, but your own in the present.

Quote Sources

[12] David A. Raichlen and John D. Polk, “Linking Brains and Brawn: Exercise and the Evolution of Human Neurobiology,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, no. 1750 (January 7, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2012.2250.

[13] David A. Raichlen and Gene E. Alexander, “Adaptive Capacity: An Evolutionary-Neuroscience Model Linking Exercise, Cognition, and Brain Health,” Trends in Neurosciences 40, no. 7 (July 2017): 408–21, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2017.05.001.

[14] “Benefits of Outdoor Exercise Confirmed,” ScienceDaily, accessed January 20, 2021, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110204130607.htm.

[15] Meredith A Repke et al., “How Does Nature Exposure Make People Healthier?: Evidence for the Role of Impulsivity and Expanded Space Perception,” PloS One 13, no. 8 (August 22, 2018): e0202246–e0202246, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0202246; Meredith S Berry et al., “Promoting Healthy Decision-Making via Natural Environment Exposure: Initial Evidence and Future Directions,” Frontiers in Psychology 11 (July 14, 2020): 1682–1682, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01682; Sus Sola Corazon et al., “Psycho-Physiological Stress Recovery in Outdoor Nature-Based Interventions: A Systematic Review of the Past Eight Years of Research,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16, no. 10 (May 16, 2019): 1711, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16101711.

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