6 Secrets of the Healthiest Families

Are you practicing any of these habits with your own family?

Medically reviewed in February 2022

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Being healthy and active with your family is fun—and it's easier than you may think. Your entire family can add more fitness into your lives together, without much equipment, planning or stress. We spoke with Dr. Sarah Turner, who specializes in family and sports medicine at LewisGale Physicians Blacksburg Family Medicine and LewisGale Hospital Montgomery in Blacksburg, Va., to see which activities she recommends for her patients and what she does with her own family. Here are the six main things healthy families do and don’t do to nurture their bodies, minds and spirits.

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Families are active—together

“It is very important that you are active as a family,” says Dr. Turner. “Children need to see and interact with parents/caregivers who are active.” According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, children aged 6 to 17 should get at least one hour of aerobic exercise daily, along with muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities three days per week. However only 21.6 percent of kids between the ages of 6 to 19 are meeting these recommendations. Physical activity helps childhood development while decreasing the risk of obesity and diseases like Type 2 diabetes. Plus, exercising with your family sets a great example that benefits everyone’s health.

What that activity looks like can differ drastically depending on the age of your children, so figuring out what’s appropriate based on capabilities is key. With a baby, you can walk or run with a stroller and hike with a pack. For younger kids who can’t keep up on a run or even a walk, riding a bike may be a great activity. Teenagers love time with peers, so invite a friend to come to the pool.

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Children aren’t only active at school or on a team

Many parents may think of school recess or soccer practice as sufficient activity for their kids. However by high school, only 52 percent of students attend physical activity classes in a typical week. Caregivers sometimes forget that play time can be just as important as organized activities.

“Let them have free play. Kids love to jump and run,” says Turner. School and organized sports are structured, but she says children need time when they don’t have to be following directions. This is when kids will develop their interests and connect with friends and members of their family. Free play is also linked to healthy physical and cognitive development in children.

“We lose that free play younger and younger. We really need to hold on to it,” she says. “With free play, they are going to naturally develop the skills that they need for team sports without coaching.”

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Exercise is prioritized around other events

“Exercise for everyone needs to happen every day,” Turner says. She recommends one hour of exercise, so as a parent, she suggests asking yourself: “How am I going to set up being active for myself and my family?”

If you have kids at different ages with various commitments, she suggests scheduling activity together. For example, if everyone goes to the park for one child’s baseball game, the rest of the family can run around and play on a jungle gym. Parents can alternate watching the game and getting in their own workouts by running around the park. They can bike to and from their home with their kids.

“We definitely have to be creative,” she says, warning that boredom can set in if you don’t mix things up. “Go somewhere you can’t tell what decade it is.” Take advantage of whatever nature has to offer in your area and get outside when the weather is good. Don’t worry about equipment unless it is easily accessible and usable.

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Parents don’t exercise alone

“Children need to see their parents being active. They are tremendous observers,” says Turner. “We want them to emulate healthy behaviors.” A 2014 British study found mothers who are physically active are more likely to have children who are also active.

With her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, Turner and her husband will take them to a pool. One parent will supervise and the other does some laps on their own.

In addition to daily activities, Turner suggests participating in community events such as a 5K or obstacle course. Not only does this fulfill the requirement of being active together, but these often contribute to a good cause. “Healthy families are going to interact with one another and with people at large,” she says.

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Families interact at meals—and without screens

Besides exercise or activity with the whole family, Turner gives two other tips for fostering healthy relationships as a unit. The first is planning meal times together. Instead of grabbing fast food on the run, focus on interacting with each other over meals.

The other tip is to limit screen time—for everyone. Children who watch more than two hours of television each day are more likely to be overweight or obese as they age. Turner says with the crossover between learning and technology, there are no simple rules. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) extends screen recommendations to children that vary by age and what’s on the screen, but for children ages 2 through 5, the guideline is generally under one hour per day. Turner recommends turning to the AAP’s Family Media Plan, which can help parents and families implement strategies around screen time within their own house.

Turner also says parents should commit to being “media free while eating or while driving.” She also says, “No screens in bedrooms and nothing one hour before bed. Just as children should see their parents and caregivers being active, they also see them on their devices. It is important that caregivers also set limits on their own screen time, as well. The same rules of no screens in the bedroom and no screen time one hour before bed can also apply to adults.”

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Everyone gets enough sleep

Depending on their age, children need many hours of sleep. It’s recommended that toddlers get between 11 to 14 hours of sleep per night, while preschoolers get 10 to 13 hours. School-aged kids should aim for 9 to 11 hours.

It’s during this restful, restorative state that the body rejuvenates, so it has a huge impact on everything that happens during the day. “When we get busy, the first thing we will all cut out is sleep,” explains Turner. “Our nutrition is not so great, and we exercise less.” Maintaining standard bedtime routines helps ensure a good night’s rest, which she says will help everyone be active and healthier together during the day.

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