Families share many things: good-night hugs, holiday traditions and inside jokes. But of all the things your family might share, one of the most important may be healthy habits, including the 11 featured here.
1. Make mealtime family time.
Why this matters: Shared meals help families catch up and connect. “It’s a wonderful time to give your child positive feedback,” says Adrienne Adams, MD, MS, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center.
“You might ask, ‘What good thing happened to you at school today?’ Use this time to applaud your child’s accomplishments.” In addition, studies show that kids who regularly eat with their families have healthier eating habits than those who don’t.
Make it happen: If busy family schedules are crowding out family dinners, try sharing breakfasts in the morning or lunches on the weekend.
2. Wash your hands — regularly and properly.
Why this matters: “Frequent hand-washing may be the ultimate disease-fighter,” says Maki Sato, MD, a family medicine physician at Rush Oak Park Hospital. “It’s one of the most effective — and simple — ways to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.” And, notes Sato: The earlier children start healthy habits, the more likely they are to stick.
Make it happen: Be thorough. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails — not just your palms. And teach your kids to keep scrubbing until they’ve counted to 20 slowly.
3. Volunteer together.
Why this matters: Helping others lifts our spirits and improves our overall sense of well-being, research shows. “Plus it teaches kids they can make a difference, which makes them feel good about themselves and can help boost their self-esteem,” Adams says.
Make it happen: Brainstorm as a family about ways to lend a hand. You might pick up trash at a local park, do yardwork for a neighbor or help out at a homeless shelter.
4. Don’t skimp on sleep.
Why this matters: Missed sleep makes it hard to focus — at school, work and home. Over time, it can also raise the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Make it happen: Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep daily. Kids need even more. “Your whole family should power off electronics an hour before bedtime,” Adams says. The glow from screens blocks the release of sleep-inducing melatonin, which makes it hard to fall and stay asleep.
5. Move more, sit less.
Why this matters: The more we move, the more we protect ourselves from diseases as diverse as Type 2 diabetes, depression, colon cancer and heart disease. Exercise also helps keep weight in check for both kids and adults.
Make it happen: “Get everybody off the couch and away from screens,” Sato says. Play tag with your kids, kick a soccer ball together, hike on a nearby trail or train together for a 5K race. Make exercise fun for everyone.
6. Share laughter.
Why this matters: A good belly laugh can rev up the immune system, lower stress hormones and even improve circulation by increasing blood flow.
Make it happen: Get silly with your kids. Watch a funny movie together or swap jokes. Try to find the humor even in stressful situations. “It’s often there if you look for it, and it can defuse tension,” Adams says.
7. Handle anger in a healthy way.
Why this matters: Lashing out strains relationships, within and outside your family. “Kids tend to express anger by lashing out at parents and teachers, and their anger may isolate them from their peers,” Adams says. In adults, angry outbursts can raise the risks of heart attack and stroke. And anger tends to lead to more aggressive behavior in both children and adults.
Make it happen: Model good behavior for your children by handling anger responsibly. Try to take a time out when something upsets you — for example, by counting to 10 — rather than responding right away. Teach your kids to do the same. “Suppressing anger isn’t the solution. You do need to express it but not in a confrontational way,” Adams says. “That’s why taking time to calm down is so important.”
The earlier children start healthy habits, the more likely they are to stick.
8. Pile on the produce.
Why this matters: Fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients, and eating plenty of produce can help reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and some cancers. So it’s important that these nutritional superstars make a regular appearance at family meals, says Sato.
Make it happen: Add more produce to what you normally eat — vegetables to stir-fries, omelets, pasta or sandwiches, and fruit to yogurt or cereal. Try meatless main dishes too, such as vegetable kebabs, casseroles, salads and soups.
9. Take a pass on smoking — including e-cigarettes.
Why this matters: Teens who experiment with e-cigarettes are six times more likely to move on to traditional cigarettes, research suggests. And teens are also more likely to smoke if they have a parent who lights up.
Make it happen: Warn your kids that e-cigarettes may be a gateway to smoking, suggests Sato. And if you smoke, be a quitter — for yourself and your kids.
10. Seek healthy solutions for stress.
Why this matters: Some stress is normal and can even be a positive force, motivating your child to do well on a test, for example, or you on a job interview. But chronic stress can trigger things like headaches, fatigue, depression, stomachaches and even heart attacks.
Make it happen: “Again, parents need to set a good example for their kids,” Adams says. “They should avoid handling stress in unhealthy ways — overeating, turning to alcohol, sleeping too much or smoking.” Instead, find healthy ways to relax and recharge. That may mean cranking up the music and dancing with your kids or heading out with the whole family for a long walk.
11. Check that posture, please.
Why this matters: Laptops, tablets and smartphones — they connect us to family and friends. But hunching over these devices day and night can also strain our necks and backs, making us prone to injury and pain.
Make it happen: Whenever you or your kids are using electronic gadgets, make sure you keep screens at eye level as much as possible. Also, get up, stretch and take a walk every 30 minutes.