In many families, exercise is by appointment only

By Jane Greenhalgh and Patti Neighmond

Most families know that their kids need to exercise. In a poll that NPR recently conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, practically all of the parents surveyed said it’s important for their kids to exercise. But about one-third of them said that can be difficult.

Take Yvonne Condes of Los Angeles: It falls on her, like many parents across the country, to make sure her kids get enough exercise every day. Federal health officials recommend at least one hour of daily exercise for children and teens. But many public schools have reduced or completely cut physical education classes because of budget constraints.

On a typical day, Condes picks up her two boys — Alec, 9, and Henry, 7 — from school then begins her daily trek to sports practices. Alec plays baseball and Henry plays basketball.

And, because Condes lives in Los Angeles where traffic is a huge problem, shuttling her kids back and forth can take five minutes or 25. Some days Condes spends 45 minutes just to go a mile.

Condes is a runner and recognizes the importance of daily exercise. She and her boys walk to school two days a week, but she knows that’s not nearly enough physical activity.

As for just going outside to play in the neighborhood, well, that’s not really an option, she says. Like many parents in our poll, Condes says it’s just not safe.

“My younger son just started to ride his bike a lot. He doesn’t have a huge area to ride in because we live between two major streets,” she says.

It’s not just traffic that concerns Condes. “There’s a homeless guy lives down the street, and sometimes he’ll start yelling, he walks into the busy street yelling at cars,” she says. She doesn’t want him to scare her son or cause any other problems for him.

And that’s why, most days of the week, Condes finds herself in the car driving her boys to “club” sports. All the driving can be frustrating, she says, in large part because “there’s so much time where we’re not actually doing anything, just traveling from one place to the other.”

Condes is a freelance writer and co-founder of the blog “I work when the kids are at school. Sometimes I can get work done when they come home, but if we’re not home till 5 or 6, then I’ll be up till 11 p.m. trying to catch up.” But, she says, “it’s all for the kids.”

Lots of parents across the country have similar hectic schedules, with many spending more time in their cars to ensure their kids get enough exercise. But some are trying a different approach.

Martina Fahrner of Portland, Ore., is co-owner of Clever Cycles. You won’t find any Lycra in her shop; the bikes there are designed for everyday living. One of her favorites is a Bakfiets front-loader from the Netherlands. It looks a bit like a wheelbarrow with a bicycle attached.

“You can literally put eight bags of groceries in there and the kids, and it’s just so much fun to ride,” she says.

Fahrner and her family bike, walk, or take public transportation everywhere. For them, exercise is something that happens as they live their daily lives, not something they schedule. Fahrner doesn’t even own a car.

“We basically mapped out where the schools are, where hospitals are, where places to shop are, and so we very conscientiously picked a neighborhood where we can walk to all these things,” she says.

So when Fahrner is scheduling activities for her 10-year-old son, she looks at what’s available in her neighborhood, choosing sports at local parks and community centers.

She and her husband used to work 70-hour weeks in the high-tech industry in California, but when their son was born they decided to simplify their lives and move to Portland.

“It’s a choice you have to make, and, yes, it’s hard obviously,” she says. “You need to look where your job is. But if you cut down your commute from two hours to one hour, you are much happier because you have more time for yourself … and your kids.”

Janelle McAvoy and her family are making the same kind of choices. She bikes to the grocery store with her 4-year-old daughter, Clover, in a trailer and sons Jack, 6, and Everett, 8, on their bikes.

The McAvoys own two cars but rarely use them. Janelle is a stay-at-home mom. Her husband, Mike, works from home. Like Fahrner, they wanted to live in a neighborhood where they could get around by foot or bike.

The main street is “probably a 10- to 15-minute walk, and there’s grocery stores, shopping boutiques, wine shop, movie theater, restaurants, book store — pretty much anything you could or would want on a daily basis,” she says.

There’s a bus stop at the bottom of the street, and the elementary school is just a few blocks away. The children ride their bikes back and forth, and they don’t schedule many after-school activities that would require getting in the car.

And while she acknowledges that Portland is particularly pedestrian- and biker-friendly, McAvoy believes it’s because of the choices people here are making.

“If people drive more, there’s going to be the bigger parking lot and more space on the roads. If people walk more and ride their bikes more, [there will be] more bike racks because that’s what the people want,” she says.

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