Have you ever met anyone who thinks they get enough exercise? Everywhere you look there are books, web sites, exercise videos and articles telling people how to get started and how to stay motivated. Our family certainly avoided any kind of exercise plan. Although we played in the yard, took walks, rode our bikes, and played soccer, I never woke up thinking, "What can we do for exercise today?" Even though I knew we weren't active enough, I didn't want another thing to do.
Then my son Danny, who was seven at the time, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. All of a sudden, with his early regimen of NPH and Humalog, long car rides sent his blood sugar levels soaring. A rainy Saturday morning of television could end with his meter reading 350 mg/dl and his body achy and tired. My regular routine of drinking coffee and reading the paper with my husband Brian on Sunday mornings no longer worked. We couldn't ignore the effects of our relaxed parenting on our son's body. We knew we had to get our whole family moving if Danny was going to have healthy blood sugar levels.
In hindsight, I can see that there was a series of steps we took that helped us make lasting changes. Here are the ones that worked for us.
1. Decide. Until we knew we wanted to change everything, we made a few half-hearted attempts to drag Danny and our daughter Jessica out to play when we noticed Danny had been sitting for a while. Once we were fully committed to being active as a family, everything was easier.
2. Convince your family. This isn't just about blood sugar control. Exercise is good for everyone – better health, stronger muscles, happier moods and increased energy. Knowing our kids were listening, Brian and I made sure to continually point out the benefits. "Wow, I feel a lot more awake after that walk," or "That workout made me feel less stressed out after work" or "Did you know that exercise helps you sleep better at night?"
3. Do it as a family. Sending the kids out to play was never as successful as organizing a basketball game in the street or all taking a bike ride to the park. On long car rides, we'd stop after an hour or two and throw a Frisbee or kick a soccer ball at a rest stop. Some of our best family time involved taking flashlight walks around the neighborhood after dinner, a time when Danny's blood sugars tended to rise.
4. Limit media. If my kids had a choice between throwing a ball with Mom or watching television after school, they'd never choose me. However, if the choice was homework or playing with Mom, I could count on having plenty of company! Early on, I realized it was easier to get the kids moving if the computer games and television were off limits during the week. Once everyone got used to it, there was more time for everything else.
5. Games are good. Brian and I didn't want to force the kids to get moving. We wanted to have fun with them. That meant a treadmill or exercise bike was out. On rainy or cold days, we played foursquare on our cement basement floor or organized a game of follow the leader that included running up the stairs, jumping on furniture and anything else that one of us would make up.
Wrestling on an old rubber mat or setting up an obstacle course also led to a lot of laughter. Sometimes new gear or equipment such as a soccer ball or a football with aerodynamic fins would provide the motivation to try something new. As they approached the teen years, our kids were more interested in push-ups, sit-ups, and jump rope routines, as well as organized sports. Jessica also started running regularly with her friends.
6. Set a family goal. "Let's take a walk" or "Let's go for a bike ride" never met with much enthusiasm, so in the beginning, I learned to make exercise only one part of the adventure. We'd bike to the library for books or walk the mile to school. Later, I suggested biking to friends’ houses that were further away. Currently, we are all training for the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure and plan to do the 30-mile loop.
7. Notice the results. Now our kids are 17 and 14, and Danny wears an insulin pump. By increasing his basal rate, we could return to our old routines, but none of us wants to. Jessica likes that she can eat as much as she wants without gaining weight. Danny is proud of being ranked the highest for stamina on his soccer team. Brian and I look back and see how much healthier we have become since we made exercise a regular part of our family life.
Just as it is important to eat well as a family, it's crucial that everyone in the family be part of a "culture" of exercise and activity. When you all have the same intention, it’s easier to take every opportunity to be active. In hindsight, I can say that overall well-being and better blood sugar control are not the only rewards. Fun and family closeness are the things that will keep you going.
Laura Plunkett is co-author of The Challenge of Childhood Diabetes: Family Strategies for Raising a Healthy Child. For additional parenting articles and helpful tips on improving nutrition and increasing exercise, go to the Challenge of Diabetes website. View a video of Laura speaking at the UCSF Pediatric Diabetes Symposium on Diabetes Health TV.