Why getting active as a family is so good for you

From a weekend bike ride to playing chasey in the backyard, getting moving as a family is a rejuvenating way to connect. Deakin University lecturer Dr Jill Hnatiuk shares some ideas.

Written by Jill Hnatiuk

Active play. It’s a concept that usually brings to mind young children running around outdoors, dressed up as superheroes with imaginary wings made out of cardboard boxes. But the fun doesn’t have to stop once you are an adult. In fact, getting the whole family engaged in active play – whatever their age – is good for their health.

Why active family play?

There are many reasons why active play is so important. Play is something that is done for its own purpose and not a means to an end. For that reason alone, it is highly fulfilling. Engaging in play that is active in nature, such as walking, running, jumping, climbing or even wrestling, adds an element of physical activity, and this has additional benefits for parents, children and the entire family unit.

Benefits to children

Active play is important for many aspects of children’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical health. It helps children’s problem solving, creativity and social skills and can improve their cardiometabolic and bone health. However, for many children, some of the best outcomes of active family play are not related to health and development at all. The best part is the increased focus and attention given to them from their parents.

Benefits to parents

Parents who engage in active play with children generally have higher levels of physical activity themselves, which is great for reducing their risk of chronic disease and improving mental health. Like children, parents often report spending quality time together as a family is one of the best outcomes of engaging in active play with their kids.

It can be very challenging to try to increase the amount of activity your family engages in. Here are a few different, evidence-based strategies that you can use to help you create new family habits and routines.

Creating new habits

Get outside!

There’s no better place for active play than outdoors. In fact, research tells us that children engage in more active play when outdoors than indoors. Aim to get outside in your backyard, your local park or a nearby beach as often as possible, regardless of the weather. These spaces can appeal to all age groups, making them great for family activities.

Plan and set goals

Family planning and goal setting seem to be key to successfully changing behaviour. Schedule in active family time, just like any other activity or appointment, so that this becomes a key priority in your family. Weekly activity calendars can help immensely in identifying when this might occur and making sure that the time remains free as other commitments come up.

Involve children and teens in the process

Ask children or teens what activity they might like to do as a family (or suggest a couple options for them to choose from if they are too young). For example, you could involve each member of the family in selecting a new activity to try during the school term and then identify on the calendar when you might be able to fit this in.

Many people have probably heard that parents who are active generally have more active children. But did you also know that children are great catalysts at increasing active play in their parents? Try giving your primary or secondary school child the responsibility for making sure your family adheres to the active play goals you’ve set – you might be surprised at how well they do in the role.

Make it fun and social

Does your partner or child not really like the idea of being physically active or traditional sports? Sometimes focusing on something other than the fact that you are doing physical activity actually helps you to be more active.

Sign up for a parent-child dance class, hit the roller skating rink, or go for a walk in the park to help your child discover all of the different rocks and trees in your area. Find any activity you enjoy. That’s what true play is. And if more movement happens as part of this process, even better.

Find out more about the latest research from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University.

Written by Jill Hnatiuk

Dr Jill Hnatiuk is a Lecturer in Physical Activity and Health at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University. She researches physical activity and active play in young children and their families.

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