Make small changes for a healthier family life, and don’t give up when things go wrong

Park runs aren’t just for Christmas – they’re for throughout the year and for all ages

Tralee Town park run  in Co Kerry. Young and not so young from around the area participate in the weekly 2km junior park run which starts at 9.30am on a Sunday. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

Tralee Town park run in Co Kerry. Young and not so young from around the area participate in the weekly 2km junior park run which starts at 9.30am on a Sunday. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

 

We’re halfway through January, so how are those new year resolutions going? Some 80 per cent of turn-of-the-year pledges will have been broken by the second week of February, according to US News and World Report – partly because people try to change too much too fast.

January is Health Month in The Irish Times. You can find articles, columns, advice and tips at irishtimes.com/health, as well as in print every Tuesday in the Health & Family Supplement.

That is why the Start campaign (makeastart.ie) to encourage healthier family life focuses on small changes that can be maintained. Devised by the Health Service Executive, Safefood and Healthy Ireland to run over five years, it is targeting parents of children aged six months to 12 years.

Right now, at the start of the second year, it is encouraging parents to try to ensure that their children do enough moving around every day – even in January, when the days are short and the weather may seem uninviting for outdoor activity. There are games you can play in the house that will help keep them on the go.

Children aged under five should be active for at least three hours every day, and for the over-fives the recommendation is at least one hour daily. Unlike adults, most children are naturally active  – if they’re given the chance.

“Every parent wants their child to be healthy and happy – but life can get in the way for lots of us,” says Sarah O’Brien, national lead for the HSE’s Healthy Eating and Active Living Programme. Start comes with advice and resources to help families look at their lifestyle, and selects one or two areas where it feels they can make small improvements.

Sticking to small changes “will make a difference to both their children’s health and well-being and their own health and well-being over the long term”, she says. With myriad commercial interests pushing products and services, it’s important to get back to the basics of what children need: healthy food, the opportunity to be physically active regularly and good sleep.

They developed the campaign through working with parents – particularly families in low-income areas who, research shows, are more likely to experience childhood obesity. Parents said that while they generally understood what they needed to do for a healthier lifestyle, the reality of raising children makes it a daily struggle.

Taking control

“Trying to make any change can be extremely difficult – taking control can be daunting,” says O’Brien. “They had a constant feeling that what they did just wasn’t good enough.”

The campaign is not trying to present some unattainable ideal and its tag line is “parenting is tough; you are tougher”.

“This is something they can do,” she stresses. The key is making and maintaining changes, and not giving up when something doesn’t go right for you. “Something will happen. You will fall off the wagon for a while. It’s not an all or nothing.”

She says now that the children are back at school it can be easier to keep up these changes in a routine. But then the mid-term break and Easter will come up. “It’s planning for how you might relax the routine without letting it go completely because it’s harder to start again then.”

She would also encourage parents to remember that “what children see, children do”. They are much more likely to accept a change if it is being done as a family. If, for instance, you are choosing to limit your child’s drinks to water or milk instead of allowing them fizzy drinks, “it is best and equally beneficial if parents do the same”.

Cutting screen time by 30 minutes a day for the whole family is a priority that the programme is advocating. That might mean delaying by half an hour the switching on of the television, or other screens, for evening viewing. Or placing aside mobile phones for 30 minutes after dinner.

With all devices switched off there’s a chance for parents to play with younger children – or older children will go off and do their own thing, while adults can make a point of doing some exercise. After a busy day at school and work, a 30-minute break from screens “gives children and parents a chance to reconnect, as well as build those relationships that helps support change”, says O’Brien.

‘Graze’

Screen time is a “double whammy” because not only are you not burning any calories but there is a tendency to “graze”. Research shows that children’s calorie consumption increases the more time they spend in front of the TV.

Earlier this month the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) issued the UK’s first official guidelines on screen time. While it recommended having time limits and a curfew to prevent screen use interfering with sleep, it said that parents need not worry that the use of devices is harmful in itself. Rather, the negative consequences of screen time come from the displacement of “desirable minimum levels of positive activities, such as sleep, time with family and exercise, and the effects this may have”.

The RCPCH did not quantify what might be a reasonable amount of daily screen time – saying this should be negotiated within families – but it did recommend that children should not use them during the last hour before bedtime to give their brains a chance to wind down.

Its reminder to parents about their own behaviour and the message they give out when they are using their phone while in the company of children is echoed by O’Brien.

“When it comes to screen time and physical activity, we know that parents’ behaviour has a huge influence on their children’s behaviour. I think we forget how important a role we have as parents as role models for our children.”

Perhaps that’s the incentive you need to keep up those resolutions.

PARK RUNS FOR ALL AGES

Every Sunday morning Moira Horgan and her two children, Aaron (11) and nine-year-old Kevin, leave their home in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, by 8.40am to drive 20km to Tralee Town Park. There the boys participate in the weekly, free, 2km junior park run, while their mother acts as a volunteer.

“It is a fair distance to travel” – just to run 2km, admits Moira. But she believes that this regular commitment is invaluable in setting up for life for the boys that “this is a normal Sunday activity that we do”.

She is also delighted to be able to share her love of running with her sons. Now aged 50, Moira never ran as a child and only took it up when she was 42, a year after Kevin’s birth, and she has completed 25 full marathons since. “It’s never ever, ever too late,” is what she would say to other parents.

She started because somebody in the Institute of Technology in Tralee, where she works as an assistant staff officer, wanted to enlist people who had never run a marathon for a project he was doing. Fifty started training with him that September, and 13 of them completed the Limerick marathon the following May.

Aaron, who has notched up 86 park runs, and Kevin, who has done 85, are just two of about 1,500 children aged four to 14 years who take part in junior park runs every Sunday at 9.30am in 18 locations around the Republic.

“Parents are free to run with the children but they don’t have to,” says park run’s country manager for Ireland Matt Shields. “The young children just want the parents and, after so many weeks, they just don’t want the parents – they’re surplus to requirements,” he adds with a laugh.

Moira Horgan, Kevin Horgan (9) and Aaron Horgan (11) at the weekly 2km junior park run in Tralee. Photograph: Domnick Walsh
Moira Horgan, Kevin Horgan (9) and Aaron Horgan (11) at the weekly 2km junior park run in Tralee. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

These park runs for children are a spin-off of the park run phenomenon that was started by Paul Sinton-Hewitt on October 2nd, 2004, when he organised a run in London’s Bushy Park with 12 other people. A dedicated amateur athlete, he was injured, had been recently fired from a job and was seeking to enjoy a gentle run in good company.

Fifteen years later, these weekly, timed 5km runs organised by community volunteers have spread to 20 countries over four continents. The first one in the Republic took place in the grounds of Malahide Castle, Co Dublin, in November 2012. Now, with the support of the VHI, they can be found in 84 locations every Saturday morning at 9.30am. and almost 150,000 runners have registered to participate.

Recreational running

But only the UK, Ireland, and more recently Australia, have started organising similar events just for children. With the emphasis very much on fun, it’s an ideal way for families to foster the enjoyment of recreational running.

The first junior park run in the Republic was in Rush, Co Dublin, on December 12th, 2015. “It came into Ireland the same as the seniors, into the North initially and then spread to the South,” says Shields.

Just this January 18th one started in Lough Lannagh, Castlebar, Co Mayo, and there are more in the pipeline – for Ballyogan in south Dublin, Cork and other areas. Shields is confident that there will be at least 25 going by the end of the 2019.

“There is no pressure to compete as such, or even to run continuously, it is all very much ‘high fives’ and fun,” he says. “It is about getting children into an early cycle of activity and giving them some way to get out as a family and be involved together.”

While it might be presumed that junior park run participants would be mainly children of parents who are already involved in the senior version, Shields says it can be vice versa. Parents who start out by just jogging 2km behind their children are then progressing to the 5km run.

While four might sound very young to do a 2km run, no four-year-old is actually running a park run, says Shields. “They will run the first 100 yards, walk a wee bit and they’ll run a couple more hundred yards.” The same, he says, as they would do naturally in a playground.

He says any open space where one, two or three laps total 2km and there are community volunteers willing to take it on can become a junior park run centre, and they are happy to help set it up. “It’s really about empowering the communities to help their own health and well-being. We supply them and support them, but the communities sustain them.”

Each week there are about 1,400 volunteers involved in delivering these events. Once you register and obtain a bar code, you can take part in any park run in the country, or indeed the world, and the procedure is exactly the same.

Mike Peirce from Cabinteely, Co Dublin, is one of just about three people who has participated at every park run venue on the island of Ireland – all 111 of them. It is estimated that he had to drive about 38,000km to do that. “You get to places you’d never get to otherwise, and you get to talk to people you’d never talk to otherwise,” he says.

Off on the junior park run in Tralee. Photograph: Domnick Walsh
Off on the junior park run in Tralee. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

Daughters

He and his wife Judith regularly bring their daughters Kate (seven) and Natalie (five) to the junior park run at the People’s Park in Bray, Co Wicklow. Kate sometimes runs with Mike at the senior ones, in which under 11s can participate as long as they are “within an arm’s length” of a parent/guardian.

The array of statistics that are logged for senior and junior park runs, including a record of personal best times for every participant, encourages children and adults alike to keep attending. Mike believes that children getting T-shirts and wristbands for completing certain numbers of runs helps incentivise them too.

Moira says her two boys, who are also members of St Brendan’s Athletics Club and play soccer, are very competitive. “I am not, I am the opposite; as long as I get to finish I am delighted.”

As a mother of two who works full-time outside the home she reckons there is no excuse for not making sure children get enough exercise. She is happy to spend weekends ferrying them to the park run and other sports. Her husband Billy is fully supportive, but, as a dairy farmer, has commitments that keep him at home.

“Yes, it is an effort to find a park run,” she says, but it is the sort of effort she is willing to make because she sees the “many, many benefits” of exercise. Her sons are “fierce healthy – out in the air in all weathers. Rain, hail or snow – if it’s on, they’re there.”

Describing the junior park run as “a brilliant initiative”, she says it’s very different from, say soccer or the GAA, where there may be politics and pressure to get picked for teams.

“Here the children do it for themselves, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing – the top 10 aren’t going to be picked. It’s whatever you feel like doing on a particular day – nobody is going to say ‘you didn’t do so good there’.”

Mike says his eldest daughter is pretty competitive, while “Natalie will chat with her friends while she is running”. He thinks perhaps it is more an age than gender thing – “the older they get, the more competitive they are”.

On the beach

Last August the Peirces did a 5km as a family on the beach in Portrush. On that occasion, their youngest child, Amelia (now seven months old) participated too – in a buggy pushed by Judith. “The girls were definitely faster than me that time,” she says.

Even totally unsporty families could consider giving park runs a go as the organisers are quite happy if people come and just walk – or even just do part of them. “It’s really about getting people into activity,” says Shields.

While he is accustomed to getting emails from senior participants complaining “that their times are a second out”, he believes the children don’t care about the results – it’s just about having fun. “For them it’s all in the moment.”

The moment that is setting them up for healthier, happier lives.

SEVEN KEY LIFESTYLE HABITS FOR HEALTHIER FAMILY LIFE

- Minimise intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar;
- Establish water and milk as routine drinks;
- Give appropriate child-sized portions to children;
- Include more fruit and vegetables across the week;
- Increase physical activity levels;
- Limit screen time;
- Increase sleep time.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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