Get outdoors and stay healthy with the whole family

Choose the right gear for fun and safe biking and walking

Published: June 2012

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The fastest way to take the “ugh” out of exercise? Do something you and your family enjoy.

We all know the health benefits of exercise: It helps keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check; and it reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and colon and breast cancers. Any one of those is reason enough to lace up your sneakers and get moving.

Good luck using any of those reasons to lure your kids away from their computers and video games, though. When you’re up against that kind of competition, you have to offer something more immediately measurable than simply the promise of improved health.

“When you’re exercising as a family, the most important thing is to have fun,” says Mary Jayne Johnson, Ph.D., exercise physiologist, certified personal trainer, and adjunct professor at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences, in Mesa, Arizona. “Otherwise, your kids won’t stick with it. Plus, when you’re having fun, you create a positive attitude about being active that could be lifelong.”

The trick to getting your computer potatoes to exercise? Avoid the “E” word altogether and focus, instead, on the pure pleasure of it. Two of the best ways to get moving— walking and bicycling—are not only enjoyable, but they also happen to be among the most affordable. And you can keep things interesting by switching off between the two, changing your routes, challenging each other, and most of all, having fun.

(This article is reprinted from Food & Fitness, which you can buy online. This Consumer Reports magazine will help you learn how to eat great tasting meals and stay healthy on a budget; alert you to 'health foods' that aren't really healthy and unhealthy ingredients lurking in food; and find out the secrets of how real-life families maintain a healthy weight and stay in shape. Plus, get our exclusive Ratings for popular food items and exercise equipment.)

Make it fun for everyone
Walk at his pace, then put him in the stroller to move at your pace.

5 ways to make exercise child’s play

It is possible for both parents and kids to get a good workout. Here are some ideas.

1. You walk, he rides. While he zips along on his scooter or tricycle, you follow along on foot.

2. Play together. Walk to a playground—then do everything your child does on the equipment. Pull-ups on a jungle gym can tone and strengthen your arms; playing tag can offer the cardio benefits of a game of tennis.

3. Switch off. Walk at your child’s pace, then put her in a baby jogger or stroller and speed-walk while you push.

4. Be the water-bearer. Carry a backpack filled with water bottles and snacks so you’re prepared for snack attacks. Bonus: “The backpack adds weight, so you burn more calories,” says Johnson.

5. Walk for a good cause. If your kids are older, pick a charity you support, and sign up for a fundraising walk. Put your tween in charge of posting requests for pledges on Facebook or spreading the word on Twitter.

Get walking!

Given all the physical benefits of walking, it’s easy to forget how good it makes you feel. Turns out, that “walker’s high” isn’t just your imagination. Moderate exercise like walking reduces stress and gives you an instant lift, and the mood-boosting effects can last up to 12 hours, suggests an October 2010 study by the University of Vermont. The great thing about walking is that you can do it almost anywhere, alone, in a group, or with your family, and it doesn’t have to cost anything,” says Johnson. Before you start, take a look at her family-friendly tips.

Warm up. Walk slowly for 5 to 10 minutes to give your joints and muscles a chance to loosen up. On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 doing nothing at all and 10 is working as hard as you imagine possible, aim to be at a 2 or 3 level in the beginning and gradually work up to a 4 to 7 level by the end of your warm-up.

Be consistent. Try for 30 minutes of walking per day. If you can only fit in 10 minutes a day during the week, and a half-hour walk on the weekends, that’s fine, too. The important thing is that you do it regularly and at the 4 to 7 level of intensity. To that end, walk at about the same time every day, so that it becomes part of your family’s routine.

If your kids are young, walk after their naps, or before dinner (see our stroller Ratings); for older children, walking in the late afternoon or early evening might energize them to tackle homework.

Stay motivated. Can’t get your younger kids psyched about going for a walk? Disguise it as something else like, say, a squirrel-counting expedition, or suggest you collect acorns around the neighborhood. Enlist a neighbor and her kids to join you once or twice a week. Or invest in a pedometer to keep motivation up. In our 2008 tests of pedometers, the Omron HJ-112 ($30) was judged excellent for accuracy at low and high speeds. And see our backpack carrier buying guide.)

Cool down. The end of a walk is a great time to stretch because your muscles and joints are warm and loose, and stretching can improve your flexibility and range of motion. Try these three quick stretches:

  1. Calf stretch: Stand with hands against a wall or tree, and your arms straight. Keeping your left knee slightly bent, step back 1 to 2 feet with your right leg, foot flat on the ground. Hold position for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
  2. Quadriceps stretch: To stretch the front thigh muscles, hold onto something like the back of a chair with your right hand for support, and use your left hand to grab the top of your left foot behind you, gently pulling your ankle toward your bottom. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat.
  3. Hamstring stretch: To stretch your back thigh muscles, hold the back of a chair with both hands, your arms straight. Bend forward, keeping back and shoulders straight at all times. When your upper body is parallel to the floor, hold position for 10 to 30 seconds. Return to the start position and repeat.

Backpack carrier safety caution
Backpack baby carriers aren’t just for people who want to hike nature trails with their tots in tow. Lightweight models designed for everyday use—like running errands—can be used for your daily walks, too. If you decide to use one for your baby, keep these safety tips in mind:

You shouldn’t use a backpack carrier
until your child can sit up unassisted (usually no earlier than 6 months) and has full head and neck control.

Your baby should be comfortable. The safest backpack carriers have a five-point harness for the child that connects the shoulder straps with the crotch, torso, and hip restraints for a snug fit. Use protective clothing, a hat, and sunscreen on your child, and remember that your child may get too warm on a hot sunny day and need a break.

The carrier should be easy to put on and take off. Make sure it fits both you and your partner before you buy it.

Secondhand equipment may not be safe. Buy a new backpack or baby carrier to ensure that you’re not inadvertently using a recalled model. For the latest recall information, check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website (, or sign up for the CPSC’s ongoing free e-mail notices of future recalls (

Get biking!

Photo: © Aaron Mason/First Light/Corbis

Few activities are as ageless as cycling. From the moment the training wheels go on—and then again when they come off—the spell is cast. More than just a fun way to spend time with your family, riding a bike is a great way to see your community up close, says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “It’s a little faster than walking, but with time to discover all kinds of interesting stuff—a creek you didn’t know was there, a path that’s a shortcut to somewhere,” says Clarke. “A bike gives you a unique perspective on the world that you just don’t get when you’re zipping by at 50 miles an hour in a car.”

Most children aren’t ready for their own bicycle until they’re at least 5 years old. With the right equipment, though, they can make ideal passengers (see below). Ready to ride? Before you take to the streets, here’s a quick primer on what to know before you go.

Warm up. The best way to get your muscles and joints ready for a bike ride is to walk your bike to wherever it is you plan to begin riding. Better yet, hop on and start pedaling. Just be sure to pace yourself. Go slowly for the first 5 to 10 minutes, suggests A.T. Still University of Health Sciences’ Johnson.

Build up. The League of American Bicyclists recommends taking kids to an open field, vacant parking lot, or track, so they can get the feel of bicycling before taking to the streets. Have them practice riding in circles as well as in straight lines, stopping frequently to get used to the brakes. During training sessions, get your child to practice turning and looking back at you until he can do it without swerving. (This will help him check his blind spots later when riding on the road.) Have him practice hand signals: right, left, stop. When you’re riding in front of him, do the same so he can learn from you. Around age 10, children are ready to ride on streets with minimal traffic. Map out short routes to fun destinations like a playground or a friend’s house in the neighborhood.

Make it a routine. “It takes two weeks to create a habit,” says Charles Cappetta, M.D., member of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and adjunct associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire. “Start with a 5- or 10-minute bike ride a day and build up gradually.” Even if you can ride only on weekends, you’ll be instilling a love for biking in your kids—and reaping many of the health benefits, too.

Change it up. Check out trails in your area, and each week, set a goal of riding someplace different.

Cool down. Try the exercises in the walking section to stretch your calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps. To stretch your upper body muscles after a bike ride, try these exercises:

  1. Neck roll: Slowly turn your head to the right, then down, letting your chin touch your chest, then left, and center again (this is especially good for neck muscles after wearing a helmet).
  2. Shoulder/chest stretch: Stand with hands clasped together behind your back at your waist. Slowly straighten your arms by reaching hands away from you.
  3. Upper-arm stretch: Stand with right hand behind your neck, your elbow pointed upwards. Use your left hand to push your right elbow down. Change arms; repeat.

3 ways to tote your child

There are three basic ways to tote your child along on a bike ride: seats that mount on your bike, bike trailers, and trailer cycles. Whichever you choose, make sure your child is wearing a bicycle helmet. Children under 1 aren’t ready for a helmet and therefore shouldn’t be taken on bike rides in any kind of seat or trailer.

Placed behind or in front of a cyclist’s seat, a child seat can be used with 1- to 5-year-olds. It’s designed to face forward. (Learn more about bike seats and trailers.)

This carrier transports kids ages 1 to 6 who are seated, strapped in, and usually enclosed in a zippered compartment. Unlike bike seats, trailers are low to the ground, which can reduce possible injuries from falls. Because the low profile makes them difficult for drivers to see, use a 3.5- to 7-foot-tall orange flag to increase visibility.

A one-wheel extension, this attaches to the seat post or a special rack on an adult bike. Trailer cycles are a good choice for slightly older children (ages 3 to 6) who are able to pedal but also like to coast.

How to fit your bike

Safety and comfort are the two most important factors when buying a bike, and finding one that fits is essential to both. Most good bike shops have someone on staff that can check the fit of your bike. Here are some tips from the League of American Bicyclists for when you’re buying a bicycle:

For yourself

  • When standing over the frame, there should be 1 to 2 inches of space between you and the bar (3 to 4 inches for mountain bikes).
  • When seated, feet on pedals, your knees should be slightly bent with the pedal at the lowest point.
  • The seat should be tilted no more than five degrees up or down.
  • Handlebar set-up is your preference: higher is for comfort and lower is for performance.

For your child

  • When standing, he should be able to straddle the top tube of the bike.
  • His first bike should have pedal brakes because most young children aren’t strong enough to use hand brakes.
  • If your child is just beginning to learn how to ride a bike, consider one with training wheels that can be lifted and ultimately removed.
  • Let your child have a say in which bicycle he gets. “You want him to love the bike, and sometimes it’s the little things—like the color, bell, or water bottle—that sell him on it,” says Clarke.

Exercise-gear checklist

To make sure your walking or biking experience is a fun and safe for the whole family, you need to be properly equipped. Here is some advice on what to bring along on your next self-propelled excursion.

First, make sure you tote these must-have items when you walk or ride, especially when you bring your kids along.

Water. If you’re planning to walk more than a mile, and especially if you have your little one with you.

Sunscreen. Wear sunscreen year-round, whether the sun is out or not. During cold-weather months, choose a moisturizing formula to protect against chapping. And see our tips for applying sunscreen to children.

Light-colored reflective clothing. A must if you like to walk or bike at dusk, at night, or early in the morning.

Many companies make shoes specifically for walking, designed to lessen ground impact and stabilize your stride. Cross-training and running shoes can provide even more motion control and cushioning. So-called toning shoes, however, have been under scrutiny for their connection to a number of reported injuries; and, more recently, because of unsupported claims that they can get your legs and butt into shape. Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission reached a $25 million settlement with Reebok, which has been barred from making those claims.


The first rule of shopping for walking shoes: Fit is everything. It’s best to shop late in the afternoon, when your feet are their largest, and wear the kind of socks you’ll wear for walking. Look for shoes with a toe box wide and high enough to allow toes to wiggle freely, with about a half-inch between them and the end of the shoe. As for your arches, here’s a quick at-home test to help determine what kind of support you need:

  1. Fill a shallow pan with water and set it on the floor beside a brown paper grocery bag.
  2. Step in the pan and then immediately step onto the bag.
  3. Keep your foot there for a few seconds before stepping off.
  4. Evaluate the print. Being able to see a clear imprint between the heel and ball of your foot suggests that your arch is flat, requiring more support. A high arch leaves an imprint only of the heel and the upper third of your foot, making extra cushioning a must, because your feet are likely to absorb more of the impact generated by each step.

If you’re just going short distances, any comfortable sock that isn’t worn thin should be fine. For longer walks, look for one that’s fabricated to wick moisture away from your feet.

A properly fitted bike helmet can prevent up to 88 percent of bicycle-related brain injuries—and yet only 35 percent of bicyclists wear one for all or most trips. Try on helmets for comfort, fit, and style before buying for yourself or your child. It should fit snugly and sit level on your head, and not expose your forehead or tilt forward and cover your eyes. Replace any helmet that has been in a crash whether you can see any damage or not.

For short rides, a regular pair of sneakers and regular shorts is fine. (Don’t let your child ride in flip-flops or other slippery footwear that could slide off during riding, leading to distraction, sudden stops, or even falls.) For longer rides, padded bike shorts, bike shoes that clip onto the pedals, and bike gloves that give you a little padding and stop your hands from getting too sweaty are all good ideas. Bright and reflective clothing can help increase your visibility to motorists.

For packing a picnic, a change of clothing, or toting anything.

Bicycle pump

Whether you get the stand-up kind to store in your garage or one you can take on the road, it’s handy for fixing the inevitable flat tire.

Bicycle bells

A great way to let bikers and other trail users know you’re approaching—and kids love them.

Bicycle lock

A must-have if you ride to work or school, or live in any urban area.

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