The incomparable George Burns was quoted as saying, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
We’re likely to get a knowing chuckle out of that quote, but the truth is that having family in the same city or town can be beneficial for our health. A number of studies have shown that when we engage in enjoyable family activities, we benefit in a number of ways that can improve health and increase longevity.
Summer is the season when we’re most likely to plan family activities, including vacations and camping trips. If the budget is a bit tight, however, and you’re feeling guilty that you can’t go far this year, don’t fret — some research shows that spending time with family in your home community may bring more happiness than heading off to some exotic location anyway.
Because August is Family Fun Month, we wanted to give you a few ideas of types of activities you can do together that help you burn calories, build muscle and, most importantly, secure those loving family bonds.
Study Shows Families Are Happier When Engaging in Activities Close to Home
The good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money. According to one study, your family is likely to have just as much fun if you keep it close to home as if you jetted off to some distant beach or Disneyland.
Researchers assessed 751 families and compared the quality of leisure time between doing something unfamiliar in a new location and doing something in the home community. They found that more quality family time occurred closer to home.
“The best predictors of happiness in the context of family leisure,” the researchers wrote, “were family leisure time spent in familiar activities inside the home.”
Why would this be? Researchers weren’t sure, but they suspected that new experiences require family members to pay attention to what’s happening. They must process new information, meet new people and figure out how to navigate in the new situation. All that leaves little time to nurture relationships.
Familiar experiences, on the other hand, give family members more time to focus on one another.
These experiences don’t have to be boring or rote, however. Researchers found that both new and familiar activities inside and outside the home were beneficial in creating a balanced and healthy life.
Studies Show Family Relationships Are a Key to a Long, Healthy Life
A recent Harvard study suggested that family relationships are even more important to lifelong health and happiness than money or notoriety.
The project has been going since 1938, with researchers tracking the lives of more than 700 men and some of their spouses for decades. What happens to these people during the course of their lifetimes? Do they age in a happy and healthy way, or do they get sick, develop dementia or end up lonely and sad?
Recent findings show that the answer often depends on the strength of a person’s family relationships. Those who were in the strongest relationships were more protected against chronic disease, mental illness and memory decline — even if those relationships weren’t perfect.
“Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time,” said the current study director, Dr. Robert Waldinger. “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”
Overall, the ongoing study has shown that people who fare the best health-wise are those with strong relationships with family, friends and community.
People With Closer Family Members Are Protected Against Premature Death
Another recent study came up with something interesting: close relationships with family members may be even more protective in our later years than relationships with friends.
Social bonds are healthy, no matter what kind they are. We need the support of others to manage our health and our lives as a whole better. However, when researchers asked about 3,000 volunteers ages 57 to 85 to list up to five of their closest confidants, excluding spouses, and to describe those relationships, they found that those with more family members on that list were less likely to die. How many close friends they had didn’t seem to matter.
Participants who felt “extremely close” to family members had about a 6 percent risk of dying in the next five years, while those who said they didn’t have a very close relationships with family members had a 14 percent risk of dying over the next five years.
The results were a bit puzzling. After all, we choose our friends because of the camaraderie we feel with them. One might expect that those relationships would be more helpful than family relationships that might be more difficult. But the data in this study didn’t support that idea.
“It is the people who in some sense you cannot choose,” said study author James Iveniuk, “and who also have little choice about choosing you, who seem to provide the greatest benefit to longevity.”
Researchers also speculated that family members may have more control when it comes to health matters, such as encouraging members to keep doctor’s appointments or providing support during illness. Family relationships, too, are typically stronger even during emotional ups and downs. Where a friend may not be around when she’s mad at you, for example, a sister is still likely to visit you in the hospital.
These studies and more suggest that we should do all we can to maintain strong relationships with our families.
10 Healthy Activities Families Can Do Together
To help you enjoy some more quality family time this summer — a time that helps you bond and helps support your health goals — try these 10 healthy and fun activities. We chose only those that you can do in your own community. No need to break the bank to enjoy time with those you love.
1. Make an Exercise or Dance Video
Choose an activity you can all enjoy as a family and make your own video. Kids love seeing themselves on screen―adults too―so this can be fun for everyone. Decide which exercise or dance you will do, plan the routine, and then set the camera rolling.
If someone in the family is computer savvy, let that member create the final product or enlist the help of a video whiz to add some music and create the final product. Not only is the activity fun and active, but it will create a memory you can all cherish for years to come.
2. Create Your Own ‘Amazing Race’
You’ve likely seen television shows like “The Amazing Race” where contestants compete on an extended journey. You can create your own “Amazing Race” by mapping out the journey in your own community.
Find a starting and ending point, and then choose stopping points along the way where family members will be required to overcome a physical challenge. At the park, for example, you may need to circle the playground three times before moving on. At the grocery store, you must take at least three carts from the parking lot back into the store. At the church, you must pick up five pieces of litter and throw them away.
You get the idea. Your only limits are your imagination. Whoever gets to the final destination first wins some sort of fun prize. If your kids are younger, race together, and make it a fun adventure that ends at the ice cream shop.
3. Go to a Farmers’ Market Together
Get your kids involved in eating a healthy diet by taking them to an area farmers’ market or local orchard, garden or field to pick fresh fruit and vegetables. Going as a family gives you all the chance to choose foods you think you might like that are local, fresh and tasty. Extend this activity by having your kids help you cook the foods once you get home.
4. Complete a Home Project Together
What needs upgrading in your home? Some projects can be done together as a family. Does your living room need new paint? Do you need to clean out one room and make a music or activity room out of it? Would the family enjoy an outdoor activity area with a basketball hoop or sandbox? Does the family dog need a new house?
Have a family meeting to determine what is most needed. Be prepared for some fun ideas. Choose the one that everyone is excited about and get everyone involved in making it happen. Activities may include shopping for supplies, cleaning, painting, carpentry and more.
5. Take a Day Trip
If you can’t afford a regular vacation this year, take a day or weekend trip instead. Again, get the family involved in planning. Pull up a map, choose a travel limit―anywhere that takes three hours or less to travel to―and see what you find around you. You’re likely to be surprised at the gems that have been sitting right under your nose.
Once you choose your location or combination of locations, enlist your kids to help set up healthy meals and activities for each stopping point.
6. Host a Car Wash
These can be a lot of fun and can help you bring in a little extra money too. Plus, washing a car by hand is hard work, and you’ll all likely burn some extra calories in the process.
Find a location that will allow you to host the event, choose a time and figure out how you will distribute or use the money you earn. Let the kids help create signage and spread the word on social media. Then make sure you have all the supplies you need to get those vehicles sparkling clean. When you’re done, celebrate your earnings with some sort of family reward.
7. Create Your Own Backyard Olympic Games
You can spend a weekend in friendly competition with family by making up your own simple games. Create medals and ribbons beforehand so that you have awards to hand out and prepare a picnic lunch to have once the games are over.
Some ideas may include:
- Balance walk: Fill disposable cups with water, and have each person balance the cup on his or her head. Whoever walks the farthest without spilling wins.
- Hula crazy: Give everyone a hula hoop — whoever can keep it spinning the longest wins. If you’ve got an expert in the family, set a time limit, and reward whoever keeps it spinning until the buzzer goes off.
- Egg toss: You know this one — pair off and give each pair a raw egg. Start with the pairs close together, and gradually have each one take a step back. Broken eggs mean you’re disqualified. The pair that can toss the egg the farthest without breaking it wins.
- Bucket challenge: Put one row of empty buckets at one end of the yard, and one row of full buckets at the other end. Members must use plastic cups to transfer all the water from one bucket to the other. First team with a full bucket wins.
8. Go on a Nature Walk
Choose an area near you to explore. It can be a park or just an area that has a lot of vegetation in it. To make it more fun, give each family member a list of things to find. Some examples may include a tractor, barn, rabbit, apple, cat, bird’s nest or other similar items. The member who finds and crosses off the most items wins.
9. Walk or Run for Charity
Find a charity event going on in your area this summer and participate as a family. Let everyone donate and find friends to help and get matching outfits if you like. Help your kids understand the cause and why it’s important. On the day of the event, help them to feel like they’re doing something for others. Celebrate afterward with a dip in the pool or some other refreshing activity.
10. Get Rolling
Roller skating provides a complete aerobic workout and can get you outdoors and exploring your community. This is something the whole family can do together safely, especially if you invest in some helmets and pads. Let each kid choose his or her favorite: rollerblades, scooters or skateboards. The only rule is that everyone has to stay together. Don’t forget to take along some water.
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Karen M. Melton and Romon B. Zabriskie, “In the pursuit of happiness all family leisure is not equal,” World Leisure Journal, 2016; 58(4):311-326, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/16078055.2016.1228154.
Major, Virginia Smith, et al., “Work time, work interference with family, and psychological distress,” Journal of Applied Psychology, June 2002; 87(3):427-436, http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2002-01666-001.
“Employees’ longer working hours linked to family conflict, stress-related health problems,” American Psychological Association, June 2002; 33(6):18, http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/employees.aspx.
Anahad O’Conner, “The Secrets to a Happy Life, from a Harvard Study,” New York Times, March 23, 2016, https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/23/the-secrets-to-a-happy-life-from-a-harvard-study/.
Adriana Eunjung Cha, “It’s family, not friends, who may help you live longer, study says,” Washington Post, August 22, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/08/22/its-family-not-friends-who-may-help-you-live-longer-study-says/.