It is important for parents to engage in enjoyable exercise routines with their children, writes Pat Fitzpatrick.
The hour goes back, the winter closes in and our instinct is to hunker down with the family for the next couple of months, possibly with a tin of Roses.
This is something we need to fight, according to Derval O’Rourke, former world champion hurdler and coach on Ireland’s Fittest Family, which returns to our screens this weekend. “Our climate is very mild and it’s good for our head-space to get out,” she says.
A mum of two, she stresses the importance of family exercise that involves leaving the house, advising parents to make it part of their routine.
For Derval, it’s about finding time to do things they enjoy together, often on the beaches close to Cork city. “At the weekend, my husband and Dafne were both in wetsuits and I had Archie in a sling.”
According to World Health Organisation figures, seven-year-old boys in Ireland have the fifth-highest BMI of nations surveyed, with seven-year-old girls here coming in third; a recent Growing Up In Ireland study found that 20% of seven-year-old kids are classed as overweight.
We’re used to hearing the latest figures about childhood obesity, often on a car radio while stuck behind a queue of middle-aged blokes out for a 90k cycle at the weekend. But as kids are doing less, it seems adults are doing more.
So what can parents do to turn the tide? Dr Con Burns is senior lecturer at the Department of Sport, Leisure and Childhood Studies at CIT. For him, it’s important to have a holistic approach around exercise.
“A lot of the research points to the need for health initiatives to be holistic and multi-factorial so that a project in school would be extended out to the community and into the home,” says Burns.
“If the key messages are coming from the community, their classmates, their siblings and at home, then those messages are more likely to have a difference.”
He recently worked on Project Spraoi, a physical activity and healthy eating initiative, co-ordinated by researchers in CIT, delivered in 12 primary schools across Cork.
The team-based it on Project Energize, which has led to impressive results in 240 schools across New Zealand since 2004. (No wonder they’re so good at rugby.)
“The school delivered the project, and we were very keen to link it to home.
"The evidence indicates that the parents are key — they make lunch, take the kids training, they are a very large influence in this area,” he says.
“We would give them PE homework, everything from five minutes brisk walking to circuit-based exercises which involves skipping, jumping jacks, with more things like jogging-on-the-spot during the winter.
"There could be little mini-competitions built into them, such as standing on one leg, see who can do it the longest in the family, small little fun initiatives like that.
"So instead of us having a family time where we sit down and watch television, we are doing something slightly different.
"A lot of times parents get involved at homework time, we just want everyone to be up and active during that time as well.”
Fitness coach Ray Lally, aka The Happy Fitness Guy, devises routines for families — he has found it it isn’t just about the exercise.
“The last family I went out to were all quite fit, the father was a former Cork hurler, the mum trained away, the kids were active. It was more they are so busy individually, they want to do something once or twice a week, to have a laugh together.”
He finds it can benefit people in different ways.
“I have some dads who are great with the sons, but their daughter might love dancing and they don’t know how to spend time with her. So with this, they get a connection.”
This is echoed by Derval O’Rourke, talking about forming a bond with her daughter, Dafne. “The time my four-year-old will talk most to me is when we are out for a walk.”
Lally stresses it is possible to build a routine around your stairs and living-room floor if you want a weather-proof regimen that you can enjoy together indoors.
“The teenagers prefer things like ab workouts such as the plank, push-ups and squats, they like it to be competitive.
"And I keep the routines to 30 minutes — any longer than that and they won’t want to do it again.” Is there one bit of kit he’d recommend?
“I always bring a resistance band with me”, says Lally, “you’d buy them for under a tenner in loads of shops around the place.”
These exercises aren’t just fun, they can also produce results. Burns and the team at CIT measured the impact of their intervention over two years, compared to a control school that didn’t take part in the exercises.
While their findings, published at projectspraoi.cit.ie, showed that levels of obesity decreased just by 2%, physical activity increased by 13 minutes a day and sedentary behaviour decreased by 16 minutes per day.
What are the most appropriate exercises for primary school kids?
“A lot of aerobic type movement is recommended for children of that age. Anything from brisk walking to jogging, out in the back playing with a ball that would be most recommended. And that’s social as well for parents and children,” says Burns.
He adds that it’s a good idea to break the 20 minutes a day into five-minute blocks if you are strapped for time. So, jumping jacks for breakfast and a bit of dancing after tea, if that takes your fancy.
Are there any fitness routines we should avoid? “Well, obviously not heavyweights for younger kids. And there will be people who have biomechanical faults — a lot of adults, at this stage in our lives have wonky hips, wonky ankles and wonky knees.
"And then you have 70-year-olds who run every day — it’s a very personal thing. But as a general rule, getting kids out and moving is always highly recommended.”
It’s also a good idea, he says, to get involved in organised events, such as the Parkruns which have spread across the country.
“The Parkruns are a great initiative. I push a buggy around Ballincollig park with my girls on a Saturday morning, we go to the playground afterwards and go for coffee. It’s a lovely opportunity to get involved in not very serious exercise and the Children’s Parkrun is a great addition to that.”
Derval O’Rourke agrees here, and says it can be great to get to fitness events such as Hell and Back at Killruddery House and Gardens, Co Wicklow, which features in the TV series.
Getting the whole family involved in fitness is an opportunity.
It allows us to put away our phones, improve our physical and mental health, and take part in something that suits everybody.
As Derval O’Rourke puts it, “Ireland’s Fittest Family is obviously competitive. But the families who don’t win, always say they were delighted to get fit together.”
Ireland’s Fittest Family returns to RTÉ One this Sunday, October 27, 6.30pm.
If you’re looking for inspiration, you will find the games and exercises they used during Project Spraoi at exa.mn/Spraoi - see ‘Sample Huff and Puff Activities’.