Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in America and doctors say one antidote is less television and more exercise. But how do you get kids off the couch?
The keys are to get moving as a family and to find an exercise that feels more like play than work.
"It’s about taking walks as a family, and it’s about biking as a family. It’s about modeling. It starts early on," says Jonathan Necheles, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Department of General Academic Pediatrics.
In my family, the activity of choice always has been biking. My daughters and stepdaughters (ages 14, 19, 23 and 26) think biking is fun, not exercise, which means it’s easy to get them moving and keep them moving. And, with nearly 600 miles of bike trails in the six-county Chicago area, there are plenty of places to go and sights to see.
So how do you get started biking as a family?
"The first thing to do is model bicycling, to show your kids that it’s fun and it’s a good mode of transportation," says Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. Sadowsky, of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, has been riding with sons Mordechai, 13, and Nathan, 9, since Mordechai was 3.
He recommends families "start off easy and not bite off too much. For a first ride with kids don’t try to go 30 miles." Gauge how far your kids can go, he says, and extend the route as the children’s endurance increases. Sadowsky and his boys favor the Chicago Lakefront Trail and the North Branch Trail because they’re not hilly or steep. They also have great destination stops—Navy Pier and the Museum Campus on the Lakefront Trail and the Chicago Botanic Gardens on the North Branch Trail.
Planning rides with destinations is key to piquing kids’ interest in biking, say both Sadowsky and Jane Healy, a bike federation board member who has ridden thousands of miles with Will, 8, Katie, 6, and Genevieve, 2. "Having a destination makes it more than a bike ride that Mom wants to take," says Healy of Blue Island.
Cycling is also a family bonding experience, she says, because as Healy and her kids ride, they talk and observe things along the way. And, she says, it’s a lot easier to hop off the bikes for an unplanned stop than it would be if they were riding in the family van. "For me that’s [spontaneity] one of the biggest benefits" of biking, she says.
Healy and her kids frequent Tinley Creek Trail, the Old Plank Road Trail and the Major Taylor Trail because they’re relatively flat. She also likes the Lakefront Trail, favoring the south end for the Museum Campus and less trail traffic, and the Salt Creek Trail because of Brookfield Zoo.
Sadowsky recommends organized rides as a way to get started. The bike federation, Bike Chicago and local cycling clubs all sponsor organized rides, many of them suitable for families. He says a family route is typically 10 to 15 miles long. "It’s nice to have an organized ride if you don’t know how to change a flat because there are people to help you," he says.
But riding with your kids doesn’t have to mean hitting the trails or taking an organized ride. Healy recommends using bikes to explore local parks, which is especially appealing to younger kids. She gets her local park district’s park pamphlet, complete with maps, and plans picnic outings to parks throughout the summer. Not only are the kids getting fresh air and exercise, but they’re also learning map skills.
"Riding with your kids is a lot of fun," she says. "You develop a lot of individual skills when you’re riding your bike … judgment skills, planning skills, gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination."
Necheles emphasizes that safety—wearing a helmet and obeying traffic laws—is imperative because head injuries from bike accidents are the second leading cause of death and injury in kids (car accidents are first).
Whether you’re riding along city streets or dedicated bike paths, cyclists must follow the rules of the road—it’s state law. Ride on the right, with traffic, and obey traffic signals and signs. Be courteous and let others on the trail know you’re going to pass them by honking your horn, ringing your bell or shouting, "On your left" or "Passing."
Visibility is key
When riding with kids, think about the formation in which you ride, Healy says. When both parents are riding with kids, she recommends that one parent ride in the lead and the other bring up the rear, with the kids in between.
When she rides solo with her kids, she rides behind and to the left of her independent riders so she’s out in traffic a bit more, which makes the entire group more visible to motorists. She also keeps up a constant patter with the kids, alerting them to what’s ahead and what they’ll be doing. And they all stop at intersections, getting off their bikes to cross while she acts as the crossing guard.
"Visibility, visibility, visibility" is Healy’s mantra. "I’m kind of a freak about the whole safety thing with bicycling," she says. She recommends wearing reflective vests and adorning bikes with all kinds of reflective gear: lights, flashers, reflectors, reflective tape. She also uses flags on her trailer and bike seats.
And when it comes to trailers and bike seats, Healy prefers trailers for their stability and the cargo they can carry. However, if you’re riding city streets with a kid who can’t ride solo yet, she recommends a bike seat or a trailer cycle (which turns the adult’s bike into a tandem bike) because you’ll have more mobility and the child will be more visible.
Finally, there’s the gear you should have to ensure a safe ride. Healy and Sadowsky suggest helmets for all riders; carrying some form of identification (write the child’s name and emergency contact information inside his helmet); equip bikes with a bell or horn, lights, reflectors and flags; wear a reflective vest and carry water, healthy snacks, a tire pump and tire repair kit, first aid kit and cell phone (in a sealable plastic bag in case of rain) and wear sunscreen.
Pricey, but fun. Bike the Drive closes Lake Shore Drive to cars. 5:30 a.m.-noon May 28. It starts and finishes at Columbus and Balbo drives, followed by a party in Grant Park. $40, $35 for Chicagoland Bicycle Federation members, $5 for riders 13 and under, free for kids in trailers and bike seats. (312) 427-3325, ext. 251. www.bikethedrive.com.
Trails for families
The trails below have been recommended for families by Rob Sadowsky and Jane Healy of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, or I have ridden them with my family.
For more choices check out the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s trail map ($6.95), which can be found at bike shops and bookstores or ordered online at www.biketraffic.org. The Illinois Department of Transportation publishes bike trail maps by region; visit www.dot.il.gov/bikemap/bikehome.htm to order a free map.
Busse Woods Trail, 11.2 miles of paved paths, loops through the Ned Brown Forest Preserve, east of Interstate 290 between Golf and Biesterfield roads in Elk Grove Village.
Chicago Lakefront Path, 20 miles of paved trail, from Hollywood Avenue to 71st Street.
Fox River Trail, 35 miles of paved path, follows the Fox River between Algonquin and Aurora.
I & M Canal Trail, 8.9 miles of paved path, loops between La Grange Road and Illinois 83 in Willow Springs.
Major Taylor Trail, 6.5 miles of paved path starts at Dawes Park, 81st Street and Damen Avenue in Chicago, and goes to the Whistler Forest Preserve, Halsted and Jackson in Riverdale.
North Branch Trail, 20 miles of paved path, follows the North Branch of the Chicago River from Caldwell and Devon avenues in Chicago to the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe.
Old Plank Road Trail, 21 miles of paved path, runs from Western Avenue and North Street in Park Forest to Plank Road in Joliet.
Salt Creek Trail, 6.6 miles of paved path, follows Salt Creek between Bemis Woods (just west of Wolf Road off Ogden Avenue) in Western Springs and Brookfield Zoo.
Tinley Creek Trail, 20.5 miles of paved paths, loops through the Tinley Creek Forest Preserve between 131st and 151st streets and Central and 80th Avenues in Tinley Park.
Jennifer Burklow is the Chicago Parent copy editor. As a teen she saved money for a bike while her friends were saving money for cars. The bike she bought, a canary-yellow Schwinn Collegiate, was the first one her daughters rode as passengers in a bike seat