Catherine Holecko – About.com’s Guide to Family Fitness
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Jonathan: Hey, everyone. Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. A very wonderful show for us. Today, we have the Guide to
Family Fitness at About.com with us, Catherine Holecko. Welcome to the show!
Catherine: Hey, Jonathan! How are you today?
Jonathan: I’m doing really, really well, Catherine. I’m excited to have you on because so much about health and fitness is about more than just us as individuals, because we’re trying to do something that affects everyone else in the family; so, having the ability to think of it in terms of the entire family is really important, it seems.
Catherine: Yes, definitely. Especially if one person in the family has a specific need, to lose weight or to make changes to improve their health, it’s really hard for them to do it in a vacuum. They need everybody in the family to work together.
Jonathan: That seems like it’s a unique challenge though, Catherine, because if I have a hobby, let’s say, I just like to play basketball, I can go out and play basketball; or I like to do calligraphy to let off steam, I can go off and do calligraphy; but if I want to make a lifestyle change that involves how I’m eating, it’s hard to do that in a vacuum. It’s hard to do in our society, in general. How do we overcome that 1-2 punch?
Catherine: Well, you are right. It’s hard to do in our society, and I think that’s why doing it together as a family can help; because then you have each other to kind of lean on. It’s something that you can undertake together, like, “Let’s find some new recipes to try” or “Let’s visit a farmer’s market together or maybe sign up for a CSA farm share so we get lots of great new fruits and vegetables in our life,” or physical things that you can all do together – taking walks, playing games, whatever it is that you can all share in and enjoy.
Jonathan: Catherine, there is an underlying sentiment that I detected in those examples you gave. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you just described a bunch of fun activities we could do rather than, “Let’s all grit our teeth and eat this healthy dinner. Oh, man!”
Catherine: Right. I think you can really make it something that you enjoy. I just gave the example of the farm share. That’s something that our family has done for the past few years, and it’s really been a great way for all of us to try new things and discover, “Hey, wow! I actually like brussel sprouts and kohlrabi and kale.” We have even had a chance to actually visit the farm where our food comes from, so that was a great experience for the kids, too.
Jonathan: That’s such a profound thing. How much of this is really presentation? Because it seems like if we came with an attitude of ‘this is exciting and fun’, that would go so far.
Catherine: Yeah, I think it does. Kids are curious naturally, so if you show up with this giant box and are like, “Oh, what’s going to be in here today?!” and it’s kind of a big unveiling, that’s exciting! I think also kids like to learn at the same time. It’s not always parents saying, “Okay, eat this because it’s good for you.” It’s “Hey, we got this new vegetable, and none of us have ever tried it before. Let’s figure out a way to eat it or prepare it that we can all enjoy.”
Jonathan: That’s so different from a standard view of being healthy where it’s all about ‘no’ and negative and deprivation. It sounds like this is really opposite of that. This is about ‘yes’ and exploration and exciting.
Catherine: Yeah, ideally, I think that’s a great way to go! You can extend that out into fitness, too. I just did this with my daughter recently. We tried stand-up paddle boarding, because both of us had never done it before. We were on vacation, and we had the chance and we tried it together and we laughed a lot because we weren’t very good; but we still had a great time.
Jonathan: What have you found to be the biggest roadblocks? Because in theory, I mean, what we’re talking about here is like we just come with a sense of excitement and wonderment and discovery of these things, and you’re out in the sun, that’s fun, that’s neat. What are the biggest roadblocks people face to doing that?
Catherine: Well, we talked a little bit earlier about society. I mean, things are all around us in terms of unhealthy foods or sedentary activities. “Hey, did you watch that show last night?” or “Have you played this new video game?” There is a challenge that parents especially, I think, face when it comes to getting our kids to try new foods that might be healthy versus, “Let’s just stop at the drive-through.”
Jonathan: I know you have quite a bit of experience. Not only are you the Guide to Family Fitness at About.com, and folks, you can learn more at FamilyFitness.About.com; but you’ve spent a lot of time in journalism and quite a few years in motherhood as well, right?
Catherine: Right, right. I have two kids and they are 8 and 11 years old.
Jonathan: So without getting too personal, Catherine – I don’t want to turn this into a reality show – but what have been the biggest challenges and the biggest opportunities or success stories you’ve seen with your own children and healthy lifestyles?
Catherine: Well, I definitely do the screen-time battle that I think a lot of parents are very familiar with. We also live in a pretty cold place. We have long winters here, so that can be a challenge in terms of wanting to hibernate inside when it’s cold; so we have to work a little harder sometimes at getting outside or getting some kind of physical activity, whether it’s inside or outside, during a long, cold, dark winter.
Jonathan: Obviously you gave some wonderful examples about the CSAs, but those are all summertime activities, I’m guessing. The paddle boarding and the fresh vegetables, that’s not happening in the dead of winter. So what do you do then?
Catherine: No, it’s ice fishing in the winter here. Well, we’ve tried to embrace winter sports. Both of my kids like to ice skate. One is a hockey player, and one is a figure skater. We like to snowshoe and we’ve done downhill and cross-country skiing and just trying to play outside. Their school has an attitude of ‘if it’s not below zero, then you can go outside at recess.’ So they do and they play in the snow or they just bundle up and they play.
Jonathan: I love it, I love it. How important is it for parents to lead by example? We all hear that. I mean, have you seen instances where…. is that really important or is that just a thing people say?
Catherine: I absolutely think it’s important, because I think kids are really in-tune to do what I do, not what I say. So if I’m sitting around on a couch all day telling my kids, “Hey, you should go play outside.” It doesn’t work that way. I need to get outside, too, and we all need to go do something together. Maybe this will change a little bit as they get older, and they don’t want to play with me; but I do think that setting an example is huge. It’s really important.
Jonathan: Is that the starting point? Do we start at both simultaneously? Is step 1 to take the sugar cereal away from the child or is step 1 to take the donut away from ourselves?
Catherine: That’s a good question. I don’t know what comes first, but I do think that kids are going to notice what we do, so if we’re saying, “I don’t want you drinking soda. It’s not good for you” while you have a Diet Coke in your hand, they’re not going to really buy into it.
Jonathan: I’ve heard some wonderful stories about the motivation and the why to be healthier. It can always be a bit of a challenge. We need a strong enough why to do anything, strong enough motivation to become easier, but seeing when a parent starts to maybe have more energy or better moods or just seems happier because they’re making healthier lifestyle choices, and their children or other family members start to notice that. I hear stories of “Mommy, you seem so much happier!” Talk about a self-reinforcing cycle! Forget about the scale entirely! “Like, Mommy’s happier?” That’s pretty cool!
Catherine: Yeah! I think you can tell your kids that, too. You can say, “You know what? I’m feeling kind of sluggish. I’m going to go out for a run or a bike ride.” And then, come back and say, “Wow! I feel so much better! I’m tired. I’m hot. I’m sweaty, but I feel really good! I’m glad I did that!”
Jonathan: How do we find time and find the motivation with so much going on in the modern world to be those health, fitness, and nutrition role models for our children?
Catherine: It’s hard, right? I mean, it takes time to shop for healthy foods, to prepare healthy foods, and like I said before, to avoid going through the drive-through. I think it’s really hard when my kids have activities and events that happen right over the dinner hour. I’m the one who is packing dinner for my daughter to take to the ice rink, because I don’t want her shopping from the concession stand and the vending machine; and I have to take time to… at 3:00 o’clock, think, “Oh! I need to make some dinner now so that I can pack it.” It gets intense sometimes. Meal planning can help. When it comes to fitness, I think, remembering that short bursts of exercise are beneficial can help. Doing things like walking to school if you possibly can or riding bikes together, then you’ve gotten in some fitness and so has your child; and you’ve saved a couple of pennies on gas.
Jonathan: Have you found that there are specific practices, maybe such as cooking in bulk – you said meal planning – but specific practices either in the grocery store or in the kitchen or just in the household in general where, if I could give someone three tips to make this more practical, they would be X, Y, and Z?
Catherine: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think meal planning is one. I am not very good at it myself, but it helps because I work from home, so I can prep things during the day, then have them ready early, but not everybody has that option. I do use that slow cooker to get something in there early in the morning, and then it’s ready right when you need it, when you’re really busy after work. You mentioned cooking in bulk – I think that’s a great idea, especially if you have a recipe that you know your family likes, it’s just as easy to make double or triple and freeze some of it and have it for another day.
Jonathan: Catherine, what are you most excited about? It’s very easy for us to look at society and be like, “Oh, there are all these problems with it!” Certainly, there are. Are there glimmers of hope? You’re a freelance writer and editor. You’ve been in Parents, Glamour, Everyday Health, obviously About.com. You see a lot. What do you like about what you’re seeing in terms of trends in the future?
Catherine: That’s a great question. I think one fun thing that I’m seeing, and I wrote about this recently, too, is there are all these great series of races and fitness events. You have the Color Run. You have these Glow-In-The-Dark 5Ks. There’s Hot Chocolate Run in Chicago. There’s just all these really fun events that get people out, because you’ve got to train for it. You have to put in the time beforehand even if it’s just a 5K. Getting ready for that requires some preparation, but then you go and have the event and it’s so much fun!
Jonathan: So these community fitness events seem very promising. Have you seen anything in terms of from a food side of things, either with school programs. I’m not a parent myself, so I’m as interested as the listeners are, maybe positive trends in more nutritious eating for children?
Catherine: Yeah, I think there have been recently some new guidelines that have been passed for school nutrition that I think are going to make a difference for kids. In my own kids’ school in the last couple of years, they’ve put in, what they call a Garden Cart. It’s like a salad bar, and the kids get to pick as much as they want off of that cart; and they really do! They try a lot of different things and they eat more fruits and vegetables that way.
Jonathan: Are there any games or fun ways you’ve found with fruits and vegetables specifically? I’ve heard stories about, for example, spaghetti squash, which is just this fun…. Are there just fun ways to eat and prepare food that you’ve found? Maybe, again, like Spaghetti Squash – let’s talk about that, or just other things that can be an activity in and of themselves?
Catherine: Well, my 11-year-old this summer is totally on a green smoothie kick. I don’t even know where she got the idea, because I used to make smoothies for my kids a lot and I put in tons of fruit and then I put in a little bit of spinach, which you can cover up the color if you use blueberries or whatever, to make it not look greenish, but she decided she wanted really green smoothies. So, we’ve been making smoothies with spinach and kale and whatever greenery we have around and the greener, the better. She wants it green.
Jonathan: I love it. I don’t know if this still exists, but this idea of ‘green smoothies and green is unappetizing’. I remember a while back, a major ketchup manufacturer put out different colors of ketchup and kids liked that because it was just different. So it would seem like this idea of ‘it’s kind of weird’ may actually be appealing to children. Is that fair?
Catherine: Yeah, I think sometimes it is. We recently went on vacation, and my husband offered up a prize to whoever tried the most unusual food on vacation, so my son tried several different new kinds of fish that he’d never eaten before. So he won. He got the most points.
Jonathan: Can you really make a game out of this, in a sense where there is a reward system, or is that just too far, do you think?
Catherine: I think it depends on the kid. It depends on the family. You don’t really want to use food itself as a reward like ‘eat your salad and then you get this chocolate chip cookie’. I try to steer clear of that. But making it a game like… we’ve talked about trying new different things or ‘can you eat the whole rainbow in one day?’ Can you eat something red? Something orange? Something yellow? That’s a great way to get all different kinds of fruits and vegetables into your diet.
Jonathan: I really, really appreciate that recommendation, Catherine, about don’t use food as a reward because we started this conversation with this idea of it’s not about ‘no’ and it’s not about ‘healthy as a bird’ and it’s about making healthy fun and if you say, like, ‘if you ate this spinach, then you get a cookie’, you’re implicitly saying ‘spinach is disgusting and the only reason you would ever eat it is to eat this thing which is tasty, which is a cookie’. That’s the opposite of what we want to do.
Jonathan: Because in some ways, that’s lifting up and saying ‘the forbidden fruit is this cookie and the thing you actually want to eat, so we have to take….’ Unfortunately, that is the standard approach. Like, you don’t get dessert until you finish your meal and then everyone just wants to have dessert.
Jonathan: So it sounds like if we could find…. Of course, then the devils and the details of how the cookie is delicious, so what do we do?
Catherine: Right. We don’t want to ban things and say, “Okay, we just don’t eat cookies in this house.” I don’t think that’s the way to go, either. It’s one of those ‘just keep things in moderation’.
Jonathan: I remember when I was younger – I don’t know why I thought this way. I guess it’s some foreshadowing to what I would do later in life. But, I would always think in addition to. So I used to play football and, for example, the team would get pizza, and even back then, I would be like, “Oh, I really shouldn’t be eating this if I want my performance to be optimal because I just knew it made me feel bad.” But I always thought to myself, “Well, I’m going to eat the thing that I brought and then I will also have a slice of pizza.” Not saying that we should overeat, but if you ate junk in place of good stuff – that’s the worst possible thing. If you had your good stuff and then a little bit of junk on top – in some ways, the good stuff would make the amount of junk you could eat self-limiting, because you’d be full. So the key thing is, make sure the good stuff gets in there. You don’t have to deprive yourself of everything else, it’s just don’t make them mutually exclusive.
Catherine: Right. That’s why I’m always the one who, when there’s a class party or a school picnic or whatever, I’m the one that brings the big tray of vegetables or that giant bowl of watermelon or whatever it is.
Jonathan: You’re that mom!
Catherine: I am that mom. That way I know, at least I will have something I want to eat and so will my kids.
Jonathan: I love it. Well, Catherine, you’ve been all over the web. Obviously, folks can learn more about you at FamilyFitness.About.com and up there, you’re the Guide to Family Fitness and one of the largest, most visited websites in the world – which is very cool! You’ve been all over Parents magazine, Glamour, Everyday Health. What’s next for you?
Catherine: Well, I’m just going to keep working on this. I was just this morning, talking with someone at another blog for a big magazine site about contributing to that blog, too. I’m just continuing. I really enjoy writing about all aspects of family fitness that I do on my site – everything from being the parent of a kid who plays sports to finding time for your own fitness.
Jonathan: I love it, Catherine. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been an absolute pleasure!
Catherine: Thank you, Jonathan.
Jonathan: Folks, her name is Catherine Holecko, and she is the Guide to Family Fitness at About.com. I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation as much as I did. Please remember, this week and every week after – eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.