It Takes a Community to…Be Healthy

Once you’re well on your way to achieving your fitness goals, you start to look around at the people you love. It’s natural to want your partner and your family to experience the confidence, satisfaction, energy, and endorphins you’ve earned for yourself. Unfortunately, getting them to jump on board for the long haul can be a complicated task. Tread delicately, and keep a few simple guidelines in mind, to help your family follow in your footsteps.

1. Lead by example.

Do the workouts, keep aiming for new goals, and follow your nutrition plan. That’s the best way to influence your partner, kids, and extended family. Fitness is catching. People notice the way your body changes. Your mood improves, and your ability to care for the needs of your loved ones gets bigger than ever. That’s good news for your whole family. They’ll notice how differently you carry yourself, and how much better you feel, and that will make them want to get started too.

It may take time for some members of the family to move past years of negative self-talk and body issues, so have patience. Be honest about your own struggles and failures, and then show them how you keep going anyway. Fitness is hard work, especially in the beginning, but it gets easier with time. Every little step you make in the right direction will encourage those around you to start making their own healthy choices.

2. Don’t nag.

Trying to guilt somebody into making healthy choices doesn’t work. You might be able to get your partner to go for a jog or two, but it rarely turns into a self-sustaining cycle of good choices. That’s because you can’t get healthy just to please someone else. It’s a lifestyle change. You have to choose it, and keep choosing it. The self-love and motivation that lead to a lifestyle of fitness has to come from inside, not outside. In fact, your demands might actually cause more body hatred, and you don’t want that.

Plus, it’s not fun to get fit for somebody else. If your partner achieves a few successes because of your pleading and pushing, the success doesn’t feel like it even belongs to him. It’s your victory, and that taints the experience. It doesn’t make him want to try harder and keep going. It just makes him want to quit, and find a game he can win.

Most importantly, you’re risking your relationship. Pleading, cajoling, and arguing with the person you love is eventually going to drive a wedge of resentment between you. It could lead to an ugly, “Guess I’m not good enough for you,” quagmire that you don’t want to mess with. Or it could simply lead to a gradual descent into feelings of rejection and defensiveness. Those emotions can actually cause your partner to make worse decisions, just to prove that she doesn’t need to change.

3. Make it fun.

Get sneaky about it. A workout doesn’t have to feel like a workout. Branch out, and imagine the ways you can get your family moving happily. Try things like:

  • An afternoon at the pool, playing swimming games like Marco Polo
  • Beach volleyball
  • Frisbee golf (great for people who need a slower pace)
  • Hiking and exploring
  • Rock wall climbing
  • Cross country skiing
  • Sledding (those hills are a killer climb, but worth it)
  • Skating
  • A day at the amusement park (get season passes and go once a week, if you can)
  • Long bike rides
  • Take the train or bus downtown, and then walk from the station to a museum or park
  • Go horseback riding
  • Take dance lessons
  • Join a family-style martial arts dojo

Enjoy yourself, and playfully invite or challenge others to keep up with you, or even beat you at your own game. You might end up pushing yourself harder than you ever would have on your own. The bonus is that everybody else gets a workout, too.

4. Turn off the screens.

America didn’t have much of a childhood obesity problem (or adult obesity problem) before there was a screen in every room and every hand. There’s no need to be a total Luddite, but it’s completely reasonable to set hours for certain devices. Try taking a week off from all forms of media, just to prove to everyone in your house that they can, indeed, survive without a constant stream of internet juice to the brain. Then slowly bring back the screens, but only for an hour or two per day.

Here’s what will happen: They’ll get bored. At first, this will seem like a bad thing. It could get ugly. There may be a day or two of pouting and yelling. Then they’ll see that you’re not going to budge, and they’ll adjust. The secret no one tells you in the parenting classes is this: Kids cannot remain bored forever. They would implode. Eventually, if you leave them alone, they’ll find ways to entertain themselves. Usually it involves pretend play, running around, tree climbing, and fort building. You can help this along by providing simple tools:

  • A playground ball
  • Hula hoops
  • Cardboard and tape
  • Jump ropes
  • Chalk
  • A tire
  • Bikes or trikes
  • Wooden boards

The more imagination it requires to use something, the harder they’ll play. In fact, even if you set your kid loose in the wilds of your backyard with nothing at all, the sticks and leaves and grass they find will end up serving as better toys than anything in your house. Now you only have to follow their lead and play along. Or leave them to it and go for a walk while your spouse watches the kids through the window. Or gather them all for a long nature walk. It will seem like a perfect idea, now that it’s not interrupting a tv show.

5. Do the grocery shopping and cooking.

If you’re the one who does the work of buying the food, hauling it home, and dishing it out, YOU get to be the one who decides what you make. It’s much harder to influence your family’s diet from the outside, by begging or demanding your way.

A few tips for making changes to the family diet:

  • Try to keep the tastes the same, while swapping for healthy ingredients. If you tend to make a lot of pasta, for example, switch to a high-quality whole grain variety, but use the same tomato sauce you always use.
  • Account for preferences. Don’t try to force broccoli on the kid who gags every time he eats it. Instead, find other greens and prep methods that he does like, and make those instead.
  • Introduce new foods infrequently. Once a week is probably the most you should shoot for, when it comes to unfamiliar dishes like quinoa or artichokes, especially if you’ve got picky eaters in the house.
  • Satisfy the sweet tooth. If you’re proactive about preparing sweet, healthy foods, like low-sugar apple crisp, mango sorbet, or simply a serving of fruit salad, you’ll help keep the candy cravings at bay.

If your schedule won’t allow you to be the family grocery shopper or cook, make some gentle requests from the person who does those things. Phrase it like they’re doing you a favor, “I’m trying to change the way I eat, and it would help me a lot if you could buy _______, instead of _______ this time.” Show lots of appreciation for any special consideration you get. Be vocal about how much it makes your life easier.

6. Become everybody’s cheerleader.

This is the best way to promote positive changes. Notice everything. Every healthy snack choice, every move towards exercise, even water intake. And comment every time. Be sincere about it. “Hey, you’re doing a great job of getting a walk in every evening lately.” Or, “Wow, you’ve met your water goal three days in a row.” Or, “You know, you seem to have more energy these days.”

Try to avoid mentioning weight or looks too often, even if you can see some big improvements. You want to celebrate the little choices that lead to those changes, not so much the results, which can fluctuate. On the other hand, when somebody hits a weight loss goal or any other big milestone on their fitness journey, celebrate the heck out of it. The best way to do that is with more activity– a family camping trip to the mountains, or a day at the beach. A new outfit or two might be in order, as well.

7. Ride the momentum.

Eventually you’ll notice a change in the way your family works, plays, and talks to each other. Your healthy choices will feed their healthy choices, and then it will all come back around again. Soon you’ll be just as encouraged by your people and their success as they have been by you. That’s an awesome loop to find yourself in, so keep going. You’re all in it together, now.