If Harvard were ever to offer a scholarship in PlayStation or Wii skills, or knowledge of moronic Family Channel shows like The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, my three boys - Nick, 13, J.J., 10, and Adam, 7 - would be shoo-ins.
Don't get me wrong. They do stuff, even outside school: guitar lessons, piano lessons, drama classes, basketball, swimming lessons and hockey. And, of course, the whole family will go on nature walks, trips to the zoo and so forth.
But that's all because my wife Pam and I are pulling the strings; and it's a never-ending source of amazement, curiosity and chagrin to me that, if nothing else is happening, whether they have friends over or not, their default mode is to lie like jellyfish, pinwheel-eyed, staring at something on a screen.
So I jumped at the chance to implement some of the tips from Sneaky Fitness: Fun, Foolproof Ways to Slip Fitness into Your Child's Everyday Life, a book of 100 games/schemes designed to turn your couch-potato kids into calorie-burning superspawn.
I confess I was a little skeptical at first. Written by Missy Chase Lapine, author of the New York Times bestseller The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals, along with her friend, ultra-perky personal trainer Larysa Didio (even their names annoy me, for some reason), the prose's see-spot-run primerishness and the gung-ho, sugar-rush positivity on offer kind of set my teeth on edge.
But the first experiment we did was such a roaring success it made me an instant convert.
#14: Set Up Shop
Also known as "playing store." Basically, the kids emptied the cupboards of cans, stacked them on the island in the middle of our kitchen, made a pretend "cash register" and sold them to me, their "customer." Then they bagged and brought them out to my "car" (in reality a cardboard box), which was in the next room.
To kick it up a notch (to give it a "sneaky supercharge," to use the book's terminology), I pretended to be a guy who'd just opened a restaurant that customers were flooding into - so I needed everything pronto, double-time! "I need a can of beans and a can of peas and some chick peas! Stat!"
I had them running out to my phony car faster than a pair of scalded rabbits.
Calories burned playing this game, according to the book: 48 in 30 minutes.
It got rave reviews ("I had a great time, Dad," Adam proclaimed when I asked how he'd liked it). And the really "sneaky" part was we got our cupboards organized. Pam, who at first cast a hairy eyeball over the whole enterprise when she saw us pulling all the cans out of the cupboard, came up all smiles when she found the shelves wiped and the cans returned, neatly stacked.
This game's more ideally suited for younger kids, like Adam and J.J. We let Nick sit this one out. I could tell he kind of would have liked to play, too. But he had some tweenie friends over; they were lying around watching TV, and playing grocery store with his suddenly perky father wouldn't have been cool.
Estimated number of calories burned acting cool in front of your tween friends while watching TV: 0.
#92: Halftime Show
Sneaky Fitness has several activities you can perform while your kid is watching TV. Some are truly risible and lame, like #90: Remote Control, which consists simply of hiding the remote and forcing your kid to change channels manually.
Does that really burn "nine calories in 10 minutes" and improve "cardio and strength" as the authors contend? I think I burned more calories rolling my eyeballs at these claims.
But #92: Halftime Show seemed to work pretty well. Every time a commercial comes on, the kids have to sing and dance and act out a scene from something they were just watching, or do a commercial of their own.
J.J. and Adam were watching SpongeBob SquarePants. When the commercial came on I hit the mute button, and J.J. tried to act out a scene from SpongeBob while Adam tried to sell me a product (something you had to put in your mouth, for some reason, so I couldn't make out what he was saying - not that it mattered).
But SpongeBob SquarePants is a pretty frenetic show, and it's kind of hard to act out scenes. About halfway through the commercial break, J.J. ran out of thespian steam and I had him switch to dancing around singing the SpongeBob theme song ("Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SpongeBob SquarePants! Absorbent and yellow and porous is he! SpongeBob SquarePants.")
But the TV was still on and this was all kind of … taxing. Soon, the boys were flopped back on the couch ("If nautical nonsense be somethin' ya wish! SpongeBob SquarePants! Then drop on the deck and flop like a fish!"), saying, "Dad, I don't wanna play this game any more."
The authors say this one burns 41 calories in 20 minutes. But I'd say: Calories burned, 13. Cool Dad points lost forever, 7.
#28: Getta Load of This!
My favourite ones in the book were those with a sneaky chore wrapped inside the sneaky fitness routine.
But unfortunately, despite all those hours spent glued to the tube, my kids are a little too smart for some of these thinly veiled schemes.
In #28, for example, you try to get your kids to take laundry up from the basement to your room or their room - but just a few items at a time!
True, this would have burned quite a few calories ("50 calories in 20 minutes"). But the squawking started almost immediately.
They twigged to the scheme in the same order they learned about Santa. Nick burst the bubble first, telling his brothers: "You realize Dad's tricking you into doing a chore, right?" Then J.J.: "Will we get more allowance for this?" Then Adam, who had been having fun, got wise to the ruse, and they all quit on me.
I had to abandon this one like a sinking pirate ship. You can only push kids so far.
Estimated calories burned (including up-and-down motion of the children's mandibular muscles as they whined): 17.
Estimated amount of laundry moved upstairs: seven items.
After these and several other attempts to trick my boys into doing "sneaky fitness," I confess I wound up with mixed results and mixed emotions. To be honest, I don't know how many of these I would use in the future. My boys didn't seem to mind being tricked into fitness, but maybe I was being a bit of an Icarus when I tried to sneak in some chores as well.
We did have some family-fun-togetherness time. And the book was responsible for quite a few laughs - playing charades, for example (#74: Surreptitious Charades, 109 calories in one hour, supposedly), though parents should be warned that this particular exercise may prompt a few tears as well, when the kids become frustrated that no one can interpret their incredibly vague gesticulations. (I'm not sure kids and charades mix, really.)
There were some good recipes in the back of the book (no doubt recycled from The Sneaky Chef) - like Purple Power Pops, popsicles containing blueberry puree, grape juice and spinach, which are actually delicious, to help replace some of the calories my little Mini-Mes burned off via my trickery.
And I did notice one other ultra-sneaky aspect of the whole endeavour. I, after all, spend the entire day staring at a screen myself - my laptop - and these "sneaky fitness" exercises got my own rather lardous derriere off the couch. That may be even more important than exercising my kids - who are, after all, when all is said and done, very healthy specimens.
Special to The Globe and Mail
A bag of tricks
So, you think you're ready to scam your kids into shape? Here are some of Sneaky Fitness's best schemes:
#91: Homework High-Five
While your kid's doing homework, set a timer to go off every 10 to 15 minutes. When it goes off, have your kid come to wherever you are and receive a high-five. Calories burned: well, maybe 6. But boost in self-esteem: priceless.
#40: Pound Puppy
Using a tennis ball, play fetch with your dog-- and your kid. Throw the ball and challenge your kid to try to beat the dog to the ball. This'll probably burn a lot of calories before the novelty wears off. Ruff!
#78: On a Roll
While your child is watching TV, place a ball on his ankles, hold his legs together and see if he can lift the ball up to his thighs. Less annoying and more fun than it sounds.
#64: Obstacle Course
Have your kids roll under tables, jump from couch cushions, roll a ball along the floor with their noses, walk up the stairs backwards, etc. Whatever they can think of-- within reason. Calories burned lying in hospital bed: very few.
#65: Little Red Wagon
Help your child pull a wagon around the neighbourhood collecting items to give to charity, such as used books, old clothes and canned items. Sneaky fitness meets sneaky philanthropy. And your neighbours will burn calories, too, having to open the door and then rummage, grumbling, through their stuff so they can find something to fob off on your kid and thus be rid of him/her. Everyone wins!