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Enjoying the children's hour

Getting your kids started early down the fitness track

Olympic track champion Florence Griffith-Joyner, now co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, began getting in shape as a child by tussling with her six boisterous brothers. By age 7, she had entered her first competitive race. Here Griffith-Joyner advises on developing the exercise habit in children early.

What's a good exercise routine for parents to try with their kids at home?

Let the kids pick out some of their favorite songs to exercise to, even if you don't like them, and make it a family thing. Gather around after a family walk, or walk in place in the living room with the music on for 5 or 10 minutes so you get a good cardiovascular workout. After you cool down, you want to do some light stretching for about 10 minutes.

Make it fun. Do it to music in the living room or wherever there's room. Then you can do a series of sit-ups and push-ups, and you can even do jump roping. A lot of kids like to jump rope, and it's a really good cardiovascular workout.

Sit-ups are also good because they help develop the abdominal muscles that enable you to bend down and lift things. Just walking requires strong abdominal muscles, so it's important that you make them as strong as you can - without overdoing it. Everything should be fun for the kids, so don't push them and make them too sore. Also, let them think of some type of exercise that they want to do so that they feel important and involved.

How do you know where to draw the line?

You want to start out really easy with kids, maybe three sets of 5 or 10 sit-ups. If they start doing 5 sit-ups and say, "Oh, mom, my stomach is killing me," just let them stop and tell them: That's great, you're working that muscle and whenever you feel soreness that means you're working a muscle that hasn't been worked, and that soreness means it's working now. Let it rest, come back,and do it again. Remember, everything should be fun for the kids, so don't push them and make them too sore. If you let them suggest the kind of exercise that they want to try, it will make them feel important and engaged.

At what age would you start a child on an exercise program?

The younger you start, the longer your child will be able to stay with the program, because the interest will be there. As soon as your child starts walking, walk them down the street and back - you may want to take a stroller - and as the child gets older, walk them further and further. By the age of three, the child should know what good eating habits are and what exercising is all about and why it's important. From the age of five, you may want to start them in some sort of sporting activity. It doesn't have to be in a sport at the park like baseball or soccer. You can start them at home.

Would you advise anything different for girls than for boys?

No. I would never put any restraints or limitations on my daughter just because she's a girl. My mom never put them on me, and that way I never said, "Well, I can't do that." The minute you say don't participate in something because it's a boy's sport, you're telling a child that she can't do something and she's going to shy away from it. I learned from experience with six brothers that I could do anything they could do. I challenged them. Sure, I got knocked down and beaten up a lot, but I stayed right there with them and it taught me how to be very competitive while at the same time enjoying what I was doing.


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