Solving The Great Couch Potato Conundrum

couch potatoes
“Ohhhh, NO!”

My defeated 8-year-old son, Nicolas, buried his head in his arms. Mom had an idea.

“Time for yoga!” I decreed.

My kids had morphed into miniature sofa zombies. Nicolas and my 4-year-old daughter, Karenna, remained content in their sluggish hibernation. I was tired too. Tired of the moping, the lethargy, and most of all—constant clashes over Wii and DVD time.

As a mom who’s also a personal trainer, how could I have let this happen? I needed to do something earth-shattering to jolt my little zombies back to life. Hence, my “Get off the Couch” initiative, through which we’d attempt four new family activities in four weeks. And so it began…

Week 1: Yoga—Yikes!

A nasty-weather day. No matter. I had a plan.

“Try this with me and I won’t make you clean your room,” I directed Nicolas, holding the junior yoga DVD I had saved for just such a blah-weather occasion. Yes, I know. I played the bribery card. But it was now or never.

“Really, Mom? REALLY?” He scowled at me in distain.

Ignoring him, I lit a lavender scented candle in my attempt to achieve the perfect Zen-like mood. “Kids, go put on some comfortable clothes.” Five minutes later, Nicolas scuffled down the stairs in his too-small, pilled, green flannel pajamas. Whatever gets him through this, I figured.

Minutes later we found ourselves performing Sun Salutations. When we approached Downward-Facing Dog, groaning erupted. Karenna held the pose briefly before collapsing to the floor.

“I’m going to throw up!” cried my drama king, dashing to the bathroom. Luckily, he didn’t. Instead, he returned and began his second attempt at the dreadful Dog.

“This is hard!” What he was doing did look painful, I mused.

“You heard the lady on the TV,” I instructed, breathless from my own lack of flexibility. “If it doesn’t feel good to you, go into Child’ Pose.” From that point on, Nicolas stayed primarily in Child’s Pose.

Ok, so yoga wasn’t his thing. But both kids seemed to like the meditation exercises. As we lie envisioning a soft gust of a balmy seashore breeze on our faces, I couldn’t help but notice how eerily quiet the house was. Kind of nice, I thought, mentally filing that observation away for future reference.

Health Benefits: flexibility, strength, posture, concentration

Lessons Learned: 1) Persistence. Even though Downward Dog was a downer, both kids said they’d try yoga again to improve. 2) Kids can benefit from yoga’s relaxation techniques.

Week 2: Roller-Skating Roundup

I once bought Nicolas a pair of roller skates, but one glimpse at my cautious boy limping down the driveway like his feet had grown cement blocks told me that skating might not be our thing. Arriving at the rink for family roller-skating night, that familiar fear crept back into his face. A sea of older kids had conquered the floor, sauntering to a catchy Justin Bieber beat.

“Nicolas, come on!” A boy from his class tried to pull him into the dizzy whirlpool, looking puzzled when he cowered back. As I clutched him under his armpits, struggling to balance both our body weights, I realized we must’ve looked quite comical. We inched along the outer perimeter of the rink among the little tykes, a tangle of legs and spinning wheels. Every time his classmate whizzed by, Nicolas’s flushed expression grew a little more determined, his feet moved a little faster, and his elbows swung a little higher.

Across the gym, Karenna’s backside hit the floor. She and Phil, my husband, responded with carefree laughter, content in the moment.

By the last song, both kids went from barely standing on their own to coasting, albeit very slowly, without help. The man in charge of the event noticed Nicolas’s sober determination, awarding him a quarter for his effort.

“So, did you learn anything tonight?” I asked.

“I learned to balance better!” chimed Karenna. Wow, she really was listening to my skating lectures.

“I didn’t fall once!” added Nicolas.

“It’s okay to fall when you’re learning,” advised Phil. “That’s how you get better.” Indeed, it is, I thought. Everyone falls at some point or another. It’s what we do afterwards that’s most important.

Health Benefits: balance, strength, cardiovascular fitness

Lessons Learned: 1) My kids have opposite learning styles, and that’s okay. 2) A little healthy competition can be a good motivator. 4) If your kids are first learning to skate, don’t put on skates yourself. You’ll find yourself on the floor just as much as your child.

Week 3: Zumba Zoo

“Vamanos!” I chirped in a ridiculous accent. Maneuvering through the chaos at the Canandaigua YMCA’s “Healthy Kids” event, I felt a tad lost. It was Zumba day.

Beyond the bounce houses, a hoard of mostly small kids imitated a petite woman’s salsa moves. I held my breath. Karenna would eat this scenario up, but Nicolas had already informed me that Zumba was girlish. That notion topped off by the idea of jamming with a bunch of 4 and 5-year-olds may send him stomping away, I feared.

“Look, there’s a boy about your age up there,” I sang in my fake-cheery mom voice. I nudged the kids away like a mother bird teaching her chicks to fly. To my delight, they both joined in, gripped by the instructor’s every move. Moving to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” they ignored the throng of gawking adults encircling them. Maybe it was the cool music. Or maybe their innocence freed them from the inhibition of caring about how they looked out there. I found myself envying that possibility.

After 20 minutes, Nicolas sat down for a break. “Can I dance the next song?”

“Sure, buddy.” I tried to hide my astonishment that, on top of ignoring the bounce houses, he couldn’t get enough Zumba.

Karenna had become quite the dancing queen. As the hour progressed, she’d inched to the front of the group, assuredly shimmying to everything from disco to dance music.

“I might do Zumba ONE more time,” Nicolas told me later that afternoon. “It’s still girlish…And it didn’t feel like good exercise.”

“Zumba was invented by a man, you know. And maybe it didn’t feel like exercise because you were having too much fun.” He shrugged noncommittally.

Health Benefits: concentration, coordination, cardiovascular fitness

Lessons Learned: 1.) I won’t discount an activity just because it doesn’t fit the usual mold of my children’s tastes. 2.) If we danced like our kids, we’d have more fun!

Week 4: Joyful Jogging

Finally, a sunny day. Time to get back to basics. I run, and I wanted to share this passion with my family. They’d cheered me on at many a finish line, and seemed excited to at last discover what all the fuss was about.

“Pace yourselves!” I shouted after the kids, their speedy feet pattering the sidewalk. After about a half a block of sprinting and stopping, they finally began to relax and enjoy their surroundings.

“There’s a chickadee, Daddy!” swooned Karenna. Pleasant, random conversation emerged as we observed the pleasantries of our neighborhood streets. Frequent walk breaks accommodated Karenna’s much-shorter running legs. We veered off onto a nature path and took a hike-jog through quiet woods. We noted animal tracks in the mud and wispy tree limbs creaking in unison. Curiously, these things took on an exciting and magical meaning.

Later, we realized that we had walked/jogged nearly two miles. Nicolas and I have continued running together since that day, and his endurance has already greatly improved.

Health Benefits: cardiovascular fitness and endurance

Lessons Learned: 1.) Bring water, especially on hot days. 2) Plan on taking frequent walk breaks. If your kids would rather walk, take a hike on a hilly trail.

The morning after our jog, Phil and I sat over coffee, contemplating the triumphs and failures of my experiment. It didn’t profoundly change our lives. The kids still watched movies and played the Wii. But they discovered new interests and gained a fresh sense of adventure. In addition, I hoped that my sometimes complacent and careful kids had internalized valuable lessons about risk-taking and not judging books (or new activities) by their covers.

“Do we have to do anything today, mom?” Nicolas interrupted my thoughts. “Can we just go play?”

“Of course.” As the kids clambered out the door and through the grass, lost in some imaginary game, I remembered myself as a kid. Back before the dawn of DVD players and DS’s, I played outside for hours, days and weeks on end. I’d come indoors at dusk, hot and hungry, for food and sleep. I was happy, and very healthy.

Gazing out the kitchen window that morning, I resolved never to underestimate the merits of simple, old-fashioned play–even if I would have to concoct zany ideas to fit it into our crazy modern schedule. Yes, my experiment was a relative success, but the simplest solution to our dilemma was staring me in the face all along…from our own backyard.

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