But when I suggested that a sunny day seemed better suited to biking than to ingesting fried onions, my family reacted badly. "We already exercised," my 11-year-old daughter said. "We played basketball for an hour." She was still in pajamas. "On the Nintendo," she clarified.
Her attitude so perfectly mirrored the findings of a recent Harvard study that I briefly wondered if she had enrolled without my knowledge. Last month researchers reported that children routinely overestimate how much they exercise. Describing their activities the previous day, 45 participants ages 11 to 13 reported an hour of vigorous exercise (like running). But motion recorders strapped to their hips revealed the truth: 2 min. The rest of the day--an average of 10 hr.--was sedentary: TV, video games, sleeping.
As kids get older, "they become more inactive," said Steven Gortmaker, the study's co-author. "In high school, other things--school, social issues--become more important than physical activity."
Concerned about the trend, the Federal Government last month issued new growth charts (they're available online at ) to calculate whether a child has too much body fat. Even if your kid is in the 95th percentile (translation: fat), there's a solution. You know it. I know it. Gortmaker knows it: a healthier diet and more exercise.
He noticed that I was groaning. "You haven't met my family," I said. "They whine." With whiners, Gortmaker suggested a sneakier approach. Before moving to the sports phase, try a few stealth initiatives. First, no TV in the bedroom. (I love this one because my kids have never had TVs; I can feel virtuous without doing anything.) "There's a substantial relationship between TV viewing and obesity," Gortmaker warned. "It's also the commercials for food." Second, get the kids outside. (This is also good because it keeps them off the furniture.) "Just throw them out, and they'll get moving," he said.
And finally, my favorite--because not only does it force them to exercise more but it also allows me to exercise less. "Chores," he said, "are great." It turns out that a 90-lb. person who washes dishes for 5 min. burns 7 calories (compared to a measly 3 while watching TV). This same person will burn 11 vacuuming. Or 17 weeding. It's a beautiful world when your children complain about carrying groceries up the stairs (27 calories) and you can reply in that calm mom voice that drives them crazy, "It's for your own good."
If you do not tell your children you got it from me (I get enough hate mail already from adults), I will tell you how to calculate calories for your family members: visit or try . I had fun there. I learned, for example, that after 4 hr. of folding laundry, my husband will be ready for cheesesteak.
See our Web site at time.com/personal for more about kids and exercise. You can send Michelle an email at firstname.lastname@example.org