Eileen Pankow, or Gaba as she is known to her five grandchildren (she’s known as Mom to me), has always been active. She started playing volleyball as a girl and kept up with the sport well into adulthood. Now she shares her love of volleyball with her grandchildren. “Playing volleyball is a favorite pastime of mine, so using a softer version of a real volleyball and teaching my older grandkids to ‘bump’ in the front yard is great exercise for all of us,” she says. “You can imagine my joy when one of them called after school stating she was the only one in her physical education class who knew how to play volleyball, and she bragged that her grandmother taught her. She’s in the ninetieth percentile in height for her age, so I fully expect to see her in the Summer Olympics some day!”
Vicarious Olympic aspirations aside, Gaba loves being a grandmother for many reasons, but one major one is that spending time with her energetic grandkids keeps her spry. Despite the fact that she suffers from atypical trigeminal neuralgia along with the more common aches and pains that come with aging, when she’s around her grandkids, she finds their unflappable enthusiasm and energy contagious. “Even if I don’t feel younger right away, I start acting that way when I’m with them, and then I usually start to feel younger as well.”
Aside from volleyball lessons in the driveway, Gaba and her grandkids, who thankfully only live an hour away, enjoy other physical activities. “There’s never any shortage of outdoor activities to keep my grandkids occupied. We live on a lake. Kids being kids, my grandchildren can’t wait to jump in and swim. We also walk the dog, with each of them taking turns holding the leash. They help with spring planting and then reap the fruits of their labor all summer long. We throw a Frisbee or a football, play badminton, kick a soccer ball, and hit whiffle balls. Sometimes we run up and down the driveway for no particular reason, being chased by our dog the entire time. Last Christmas we even had potato gun fights.”
Follow Gaba’s lead and get active with your grandkids. You’ll not only be making happy memories, you’ll be doing your body—and soul—well.
Not a fan of sports or “real” exercise like running or walking? Here are three other ways to get outdoors and get active with your grandchildren.
Take a trip.
“Last year I took my grandson Ross to Disney World during the summer. We also hung out at the beach,” says Dax Sullivan, a grandmother of two.
Anyone who has gone to see Mickey with excited little sidekicks knows you’re sure to do plenty of walking. And combing the beach for seashells, playing in the waves, and building sandcastles is more than just fun—it burns plenty of calories as well.
Max Lucado wrote, “Nature is God’s first missionary.” One of the best ways to bask in the beauty of creation is to venture out for a hike. It also happens to be a great workout and a wonderful pastime to introduce to children. “My parents live in northwestern New Jersey, where there are many mountains with hiking trails. My dad likes to take his grandkids (all are 11 years old and older) on hikes,” says Barb Szyszkiewicz. “The hikes grew out of the post-holiday-dinner-walk around the neighborhood and have gotten longer as the children have gotten older. These hikes afford my dad some time with just one or two of his grandchildren—time he doesn’t get a lot of since only two of his grandkids live nearby.”
Depending on the age of the child, Barb says the hikes can last anywhere between one and three hours. No matter the duration, there are always beautiful sights to savor and memories to be made. “Dad likes to take the grandkids to see his favorite places: beautiful mountain views, babbling brooks, and rock sculptures. He’d love to be able to get all eight grandchildren together for a hike one of these days.”
Catch a big one—or not.
Pop, one of my kids’ grandfathers, enjoys taking the kids fishing even when the big one gets away. “Fishing is not just about catching fish. It’s about trying to catch a fish,” says Pop (AKA Jerry Wicker). “Catching fish is the obvious goal. But fishing in itself involves everything from thinking about it, getting bait and fishing gear, and getting ready to go to finding a fishing spot, talking about probable best fishing tactics, reminiscing about past angling feats, looking at the local scenery, watching for snakes and other unusual wildlife, eating, laughing, and so on, ending with the journey back home and (sometimes) cleaning, cooking, and eating the fish we caught. Our enjoyment always comes from the whole event.”
Another reason Pop finds fishing so rewarding for both himself and his grandchildren is because it takes them outdoors and away from TV, iPads, and a sedentary, indoor life. “The outdoors is readily and freely available just outside your front door. And, very importantly, children can do many things in outdoor spaces that they just can’t do indoors—like fishing in a pond or running back and forth under a sprinkler,” he says. “The outdoors is different from the indoors in so many ways, offering a unique, larger, ever-changing, instinctively enjoyable palate of sensory experiences to the naturally hungry little child. Children are tougher than us “civilized adults”—they actually seem to enjoy getting dirty, wet, muddy, insect-bitten, hot, sweaty, and/or freezing cold. To them, it’s part of what they call play.”
Whether you’re eight or 80, we all could use a little more play in our life. Laughter, fun, running—even if it’s just a brief sprint to chase a wayward toddler—keeps us healthy, happy, and young. Like my mom is fond of saying, “Age is a state of mind.”
Additional Good News: The grandparent connection.
Investing in your relationship with your grandchildren offers a big payoff: You might just live longer. Social connections with friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues improve your odds of survival by 50 percent, according to a Brigham Young University study. Physical activity doesn’t even need to be part of the connection. In fact, researchers suggest low social connection is more harmful than not exercising as risk factor for death. So start cuddling with those grandkids. If distances prevents regular visits, write letters, record yourself telling a story, use technology like Skype to stay in touch, and consider planning an annual trip with your grandchildren and their family. Reach out, live well, and be well!