alive by natureBefore I got married, I was in the best physical condition of my life. I regu­larly ran the eight-mile loop in New York City’s Central Park, keeping up an easy conversation with my running partner. It’s hard for me to believe now, but we actually considered—seri­ously—running a marathon someday.

Five years and two children later, I no longer talk about running mar­athons. In fact I no longer jog. But al­though my fitness goals have changed somewhat, I haven’t given them up. I play tennis at least twice a week, and I regularly take advantage of the baby-sitting services at my local YMCA so I can use the cross-country ski machine and Nautilus equipment. On nice days I put my three-year- and six-month-old daughters in the double stroller and go for long walks in the park.

Many people find, as I did, that their fitness patterns shift after marriage and children. Sometimes the changes are all for the good. “Baby boomers who were obsessed with fitness are increas­ingly realizing they don’t need to spend as much time in a gym,” says Lynne Vaughan, director of program services for the Chicago-based YMCA of the USA. “They’re more comfortable with themselves and have more realistic ex­pectations of what they can achieve.”

Unfortunately, family commitments often lead to giving up exercise alto­gether. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 56% of men and 44% of women between ages 18 and 29 exer­cise regularly, but those numbers drop to 44% and 40%, respectively, among people 30 to 44. The likelihood of obe­sity also increases during the thirty-something years: Only 16% of women and 20% of men 18 to 29 are obese, compared with 25% and 32%, respec­tively, of 30- to 44-year-olds.

Children are becoming less fit too. One study, by the Massachusetts Gov­ernor’s Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports, found that obesity in ado­lescents had increased 50% since the 1960s. And a second, national study found that the percentage of schoolchil­dren who achieved satisfactory levels of fitness declined from 43% in 1980 to 32% in 1990.

These trends have serious health con­sequences. Regular physical activity helps stave off cardiovascular disease, diabetes, breast and colon cancer, os­teoporosis and depression. And since certain chronic diseases have their roots in an inactive childhood, the ear­lier a child starts exercising, the greater the benefits. For example, a study of white, college-aged women suggests that those who don’t exercise have less bone mass than their more active peers, a characteristic of osteoporosis. Exer­cise also promotes self-confidence and a positive body image.

Why then are so many families inac­tive? There’s a natural inclination to let yourself go a bit after marriage. “Many people work out before the wedding to please a partner or to fit into their gown or tuxedo,” says Washington psycholo­gist Sharon Spiegel. “But once they achieve their goal, their motivation is gone.” And some spouses unwittingly undermine their partner’s efforts to stay in shape. Repeatedly nagging a sedentary spouse to go to the gym, for instance, can backfire. “Just as you can’t force someone to diet, you can’t force him or her to work out,” says Dr. Spiegel.

When kids enter the picture, finding the time and energy to exercise can be even more challenging. Parents of an infant who isn’t sleeping through the night are likely to find a daytime nap more compelling than a workout. “A psychological shift may occur too,” says Spiegel. “Becoming a parent can create an unconscious desire to look like your childhood concept of a mother or father rather than a sexually desir­able woman or man.”

As for kids, they’re less active these days because they spend more time in­doors, due to a rise in crime fears as well as the growth in dual-career cou­ples who aren’t home to supervise play. Working parents usually can’t shuttle kids back and forth to after-school sports or dance lessons. And due to cuts in physical education and local park and recreation programs, they of- ten can’t count on schools and commu­nities to pick up the slack. For instance, fewer than I% of elementary schools in Massachusetts provide students with physical education classes three times a week.

Then there’s TV, the primary culprit. A 1994 CDC report found that only 37% of high school students do at least 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity three or more times a week, down from 47% in 1984. But 70% watch at least an hour of TV a day, and more than a third watch more than three hours.

By exercising as a family, you can inspire your kids and show them that physical activity is something you value. In a 1990 Boston University study, researchers found that children of active mothers were twice as likely to be active as those with sedentary mothers; children of active fathers were 3% times as likely to be active.

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