Want to get your family off on a healthier track? It doesn't have to mean radical change.
Here are five little ways to produce big results.
The family that plays together stays together.
Everyone knows that regular physical activity will improve your health. Fitness icon Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper is an ardent advocate of exercise who still works out at 81. It wasn't always that way.
He didn't exercise when he was a medical resident and had a cardiac incident at 29. He knew he had to change his life, and when he did he brought his wife and two kids along for the run. The result? A healthier family and a closer one.
"Sunday afternoons we all ran together from the time my daughter was 10 and my son was 5. We were known as the running family. ... Now I walk briskly with my 6-year-old grandson."
Cooper's tip: "Find a game your family enjoys and play together. ... I've been married 53 years and now to have my son (Dr. Tyler Cooper) follow in my footsteps, taking over the aerobics center, it's a dream come true."
Note: The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends exercising four to six times a week for 30 to 60 minutes at a time and advises consulting with a doctor before you start. Cooper adds that if you want to go for a family run, do it before dinner because running after a heavy meal can strain the heart. If you want to exercise after dinner, make it a gentle walk.
Swap healthful ingredients for the unhealthful ones.
You don't need to toss your comfort foods, says Cindy Kleckner, a registered and licensed dietitian at Cooper Clinic. As part of her "recipe rehab" program, Kleckner shows people how to modify cooking techniques to get that "fried feeling" by breading and baking foods in small amounts of oil. She also suggests swapping fatty ingredients in baking, such as oil, for healthier options such as applesauce, mashed banana or mashed prunes.
"I call it revitalizing your recipes for better health," Kleckner says. "It's not about taking away foods you love but making them better."
Kleckner's tip: Let a professional dietitian get you started. Note: Missy Chase Lapine's Sneaky Chef series shows how to add healthy vegetable puries to recipes. The Mayo Clinic offers a guide to healthy substitutions at www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-recipes/NU00585.
Keep on schedule with these apps.
One of the biggest challenges to keeping a busy family on track for medical appointments, vaccinations and medications is remembering when they are. Dr. Philip J. Aponte, vice president of informatics at HealthTexas Provider Network in Dallas, says there are lots of good apps that can help. He relies on Microsoft Health Vault for his family, which is free at microsoft.com/en-us/healthvault/.
"Inevitably, whether you're going to a different physician or filling out a life insurance policy, you're someplace where you need to recall information, and it seemed silly that I had to find a paper folder and search for it. Now I have the app on my iPhone and I can show the doctor all my medications and my laboratory data. I can track my weight and set goals, see if there might be any problems with drug interactions. When I had to register my daughter for kindergarten, it was easy because I had all her medical information there."
Aponte's tip: An app can simplify your life, but only if you commit to diligently updating it.
Note: Consider your goals when you decide what medical app is right for you. Some will help you track glucose levels or can be connected with other devices, including scales.
Just say yes to family dinners.
Teens do better in school and are less likely to abuse prescription drugs, use illegal drugs, smoke or drink when they have regular family dinners, according to a 2007 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Plus, even if they don't come out and tell you, 84 percent of teens prefer to have dinner with their families.
Dr. Nancy Donachie, medical director of Seay Behavioral Health Center at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Plano, says her top tip for parents is to "have dinner with the family with the TV off and take the opportunity to engage in conversation." Dr. Sarah Feuerbacher, clinic director of the Southern Methodist University Center for Family Counseling, agrees.
Feuerbacher's tip: "It isn't just about the tasty food we put into our mouths, although that allows for conversation and even laughter about the guacamole competitions we create or how many dinners in a row I can burn the bread. Just yesterday my 2-year-old said, and I kid you not, 'This is where mama burns food' as he pointed to his kitchen playset oven. It is about the dancing that we do while we cook, or recognizing someone is a great flavor inventor, or playing outside with the dogs while our food is on the grill, or watching my baby bounce in his seat and laugh while he takes in his family having fun as one of his first memories."
Note: Check out CASA's Family Day-A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children program, at www.casafamilyday.org/ for ideas on how to get started.
Turn off the phone - you, too, parents.
If your kids are struggling, consider the possibility that their cellphones are interfering with their sleep. Fifty-six percent of teens bring their cellphones into their bedrooms and use them, with texting especially popular in the hour before trying to go to bed, according to the 2011 Sleep in America Poll from the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.
Before you wag that finger, however, look in the mirror. Parents need to turn off their cellphones, too, says Dr. Kara Starnes, a pediatrician with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Allen.
"I think you have to be a good role model," Starnes says. "I hate when I see parents come into the room and they have their phones attached. . It makes it harder when you have a teenager and they say, 'Why do I have to put my phone down when you won't put down yours?' You have to sit down and explain why it's important to change the behaviors together."
Note: Technological fixes include setting a timer on the television and working with your cellphone carrier to limit the hours and the callers from whom you can receive calls and texts. Starnes also recommends talking to your doctor about starting a sleep hygiene program that works for the whole family.