In Many Families, Exercise Is By Appointment Only
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer. In our continuing series "On the Run," we're looking at childhood obesity and its causes. Today, we turn to exercise and the results of a poll 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 a third of them said that can be difficult.
For this story, NPR's Jane Greenhalgh and Patti Neighmond talked with families who believe exercise is important, but whose children are getting it in very different ways. Patti Neighmond starts us off on the streets of Los Angeles, where people seem - always - to be in their cars.
YVONNE CONDES: Hey, you need to put on your cleats.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Yvonne Condes shepherds four little boys. There's Brooklyn and Emerson and then her own two sons, Alec, 9; and Henry, 7. She's getting them into the car as they head out for the afternoon's activities.
CONDES: Oh, and here's your hat.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)
CONDES: And I'm going to take one of my kids to baseball practice and drop him off, and wait until everyone gets there and make sure he's OK; and then drive the other three kids to basketball practice. I think we're going to be late to something, but I'm not sure which one.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CHILD LAUGHING)
NEIGHMOND: Late because after all, this is Los Angeles, with miles and miles between school, baseball and basketball; to say nothing of traffic, which means transporting the kids can take five minutes or 25.
CONDES: So Alec, let's go look for your team.
NEIGHMOND: And as expected...
CONDES: Alec, let's go! Let's go! We're going to be late now.
NEIGHMOND: A typical day for Yvonne Condes, getting her kids from school to afternoon activities outside of school. Condes is a blogger and co-founder of MomsLA.com. Her busy schedule is repeated with families across the country, as tight school budgets force more and more elementary and middle schools to reduce or completely cut P.E.
CONDES: Alec, I'm going to go, OK? Your stuff's right here. OK?
NEIGHMOND: Now that she's dropped Alec off at home plate, Condes gets back in the car and is off to take younger brother Henry to his basketball practice. As for just going outside to play and exercise in the neighborhood, well, that's not an option. Like many parents in our poll, Condes says it's just not safe from traffic.
CONDES: My younger son just started riding his bike a lot; he really loves to ride his bike. So I'll go outside in the front, and he'll ride just a little way. He doesn't have like, a huge area to ride in because we live between two major streets. You know, it's like one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles. So it's not like he can just go - he can go off and ride his bike.
NEIGHMOND: And it's not just traffic that worries Condes.
CONDES: There's a homeless guy who lives down the street and sometimes, he'll just start yelling. And sometimes, he'll walk out onto the busy street and start yelling at cars, and that kind of thing. And so I don't want him to scare my son or, you know, for him to get in the way or for anything to happen.
NEIGHMOND: So bike riding is curtailed. Condes walks her boys to school two days a week. But that's not nearly enough exercise, she says. Condes is a runner herself, and really gets how important it is to keep her kids active. And national health officials recommend kids get at least one hour of physical activity every day - which is why most days of the week, Condes finds herself in the car, driving her boys to club sports.
CONDES: Don't mess around with the baseball, you guys. Don't throw the ball in the car.
NEIGHMOND: There's not a lot of traffic but still, Condes is a bit late for Henry's basketball practice.
CONDES: OK, do not run across the parking lot. OK?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah!
CONDES: Stay here, and ...
NEIGHMOND: First, a bathroom stop and then to the court where parent volunteer Cora Woodward is coaching.
CORA WOODWARD: Henry - wait, wait, wait. Where are you shooting? And give it a nice arc. That looks good, Henry. Oh, almost, almost.
NEIGHMOND: After about a half-hour of practice and a short game, Condes is back on the road.
CONDES: I think this schedule is going to kill me.
CONDES: There's so much time where we're not actually doing anything. We're just traveling from one place to the other, which is a little frustrating 'cause I work when the kids are at schoo and, you know, sometimes I can get work done when they come home. But if we're not home until 5 or 6, then I'm going to be up until 11 or 12, trying to catch up. But that's OK. It's all for the kids. (LAUGHTER)
NEIGHMOND: Lots of parents across the country have similar hectic schedules. But some are trying a different approach. My colleague Jane Greenhalgh lives in Portland, Oregon, and she talked with two families who are trying to slow down, get out of the car, and travel by foot or bike.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIKE BELLS)
MARTINA FAHRNER: Ooh, that is a really cool one.
JANE GREENHALGH, BYLINE: Martina Fahrner is a co-owner of Clever Cycles. She's showing me one of her favorite bikes.
FAHRNER: This is a front-loader, comes from the Netherlands.
GREENHALGH: It's a gleaming beauty. It looks a bit like a wheelbarrow with a bicycle attached.
FAHRNER: You can literally, put eight bags of groceries in there, and the kids; and it's just so much fun to ride.
GREENHALGH: You won't find any Lycra in this shop. The bikes here are designed for everyday living. And if peddling a heavy bike full of kids and groceries sounds hard, Fahrner says if you start small, it's amazing what you can build up to.
FAHRNER: You know, we are in gyms, and we are bench-pressing 200 pounds; or you leg press 200 pounds. You can do that on a bike, and it's not really that different. If we can do it in a gym, we can do it in real life.
GREENHALGH: Fahrner and her family bike or walk or take public transportation everywhere. The end result is for them, exercise is something that happens as they live their daily lives. It's not something they schedule. In fact, Fahrner doesn't even own a car.
FAHRNER: 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.
GREENHALGH: So when Fahrner is arranging 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 moved to Portland.
FAHRNER: It's a choice that you have to make and yes, it's hard. You know, obviously, you need to look where your job is. But then if you cut down your commute from two hours to one hour, you are much happier because you have more time for yourself, for your kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIKE BELL)
JANELLE MCAVOY: Clear.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIKE BELL)
GREENHALGH: Janelle McAvoy and her family are making the same kind of choices. She's biking to the grocery store. Her 4-year-old daughter, Clover, is in the trailer. her 6-year-old son, Jack, and 8-year-old son, Everett, are on their bikes.
MCAVOY: Is it clear, Everett?
EVERETT MCAVOY: Yes, clear.
GREENHALGH: The McAvoys own two cars, but they 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.
MCAVOY: Hawthorne is the main street by us, and it's probably 10- to 15-minute walk. And there's grocery store, shopping boutiques, wine shop, movie theater, restaurants, bookstore - pretty much anything that you would or could want on a daily basis.
GREENHALGH: 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 which would require getting in the car.
MCAVOY: If they need downtime or want downtime, they're in the basement playing with Legos. Otherwise, they are outside playing ball or running or riding their bikes.
GREENHALGH: And while she acknowledges that Portland is particularly pedestrian and biker-friendly, McAvoy believes it's because of the choices people here are making.
MCAVOY: If people drive more, there's going to be the bigger parking lots, and there's more space on the roads. If people walk more and ride their bikes more, there's more bike lanes, and there's more bike racks - because that's what the people want.
GREENHALGH: And for those of you who are thinking, isn't Portland wet? Martina Fahrner has an easy answer.
FAHRNER: And what is the problem with getting wet?
GREENHALGH: Just throw a big rain cape over your work clothes, and she says no one will be wiser you came by bike.
With Patti Neighmond in Los Angeles, I'm Jane Greenhalgh, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.