Family, Kids & Relationships

Ways to sneak more exercise into your family routine, even in colder weather

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We’ve all heard about the benefits of physical activity for the whole family, ranging from stronger immune systems to lowered risk of diabetes to improved mental health and brain function. But when so many of our everyday routines — like homework, commuting, and nightly entertainment — involve sitting still, it’s hard to get in enough movement.

Especially in the doldrums of winter, getting the recommended amount of exercise on a daily or weekly basis — or convincing yourself or your kids to go outside at all — can seem nearly impossible. And fitting gym workouts into your stretched schedule (not to mention budget) is often unrealistic.

The key to getting in more physical activity, without breaking the bank or somehow adding more hours to the day, is to make small changes to your family’s everyday routines. Here are some approaches to start with. Once you implement one small change, you’ll start to think of even more solutions that could work for your family — and bring some joy to your winter!

Change up your commute

Walking or biking to school is a healthy habit to start young, but is only a reality for about 11 percent of school kids these days. Of course it’s not feasible for everyone, but maybe there is a segment of your commute that could become more active — for example, getting kids to the bus stop on foot or scooter instead of by car. Having to clean off and warm up the car in winter is a pain, anyway — plus, you’ll be helping decrease air pollution.

If your child doesn’t take a bus or public transit, consider switching to walking by setting up a walking school bus for safety (and motivation) in numbers! If the entire distance is too far to walk, or there are unsafe streets along the route, you could make it work with a remote drop-off location where you park a reasonable distance from school and kids can walk/bike/scoot the rest of the way with a friend or with another family you know.

Track your outdoor hours

If you or your family members thrive on a good challenge, try tracking your total outdoor time for one month, then setting a higher goal for the next month. Or, track your TV time side by side with your outdoor time, and try to make them at least equal. Yes, even in winter!

To track hours, make a simple chart, use graph paper, or download one of these creative trackers from 1000 Hours Outside — and color in a box for each hour spent outdoors. Once you get going with it, you’ll realize how energizing the outdoor time is for your body and mind, and you’ll probably want more of it.

You don’t have to go on a hiking or sledding adventure to log outdoor time. Think of creative ways to make it happen in between everyday life activities, too. For example, if possible, try to park farther away from the store/office/school than you normally would, and you’ll get a walk in!

Chore relay races

Housework needs to get done, so why not make it fun? You can make laundry day into an active “race” for the whole family by giving each person a pile of clothes to put away, but only allowing them to carry one item at a time — so they have to keep going back and forth to a different room of the house until every item has found its place.

If you have the right number of people in your family, you can make teams and compete against each other, relay style. You could try the same method for putting away groceries, books, toys, etc.

Just add dancing

You can make cooking, cleaning, and even a car ride more active by turning on your most dance worthy tunes. It’ll bring joy to your everyday routines, and make everyone want to bust a move.

Or use music to motivate the whole family to do something they normally wouldn’t in colder temps — like blasting your kids’ favorite movie soundtrack from a portable speaker while they play outside in the yard. You might even cheer up the neighbors!

Reimagine screen time

A big part of the problem with too much screen time is that you’re usually spending that time just sitting there, staring at your device. But there are ways to make screen time more beneficial to your body — without losing the fun.

When you’re watching something together as a family, try “ad challenges” where you use the ad breaks to see who can do the most jumping jacks or put away the most toys before your show comes back on. If there are no commercial breaks in whatever you’re watching, just create your own pauses and use a 2-minute timer.

Whenever possible, try to choose screen time that inspires kids to do something active during or afterwards. If they’re not into workout or dance videos, or kids’ yoga, you could suggest something like watching a slam dunk contest and then shooting some hoops.

Start a weekly tradition

When something becomes an “every Friday night” or “every Sunday morning” type of activity, it increases bonding, positive memories, and better mental health for the whole family. If you can create a physically active weekly tradition, even better!

Maybe you already have a weekly pizza night or pancake breakfast — awesome! — now how can you add on to that? Examples include doing a walking scavenger hunt on the way to pick up your takeout order, or adding bowling or roller skating to your post-Sunday-brunch routine.

Try a new winter sport

A lot of your and your kids’ favorite physical activities might be paused during the winter months due to the weather or the sports seasons. If that’s the case, try a new sport this winter! Bond by learning something new together as a family, and/or relish some weekly alone time by attending an adult-only class.

Check your local recreation programs, library calendar, and gym schedule for activity ideas such as ice skating, roller skating, bowling, pickleball, squash, lap swimming, dance, yoga, martial arts, etc. Or make up your own backyard sporting event — like the Snow Pile Olympics.


Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.

For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.




Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.