Like a lot of men of his generation, my father's after-work ritual always included a cold, dry martini — and refills. • When his physician, worried about his heart, told him to cut back to one drink a day, he switched from a highball glass to an iced tea glass. "Doctor's orders," he said with a wink. • He kept the fridge at his cabin in Maine stocked with his high-salt, high-fat favorites, like pickled herring spread and Miracle Whip. • He had suffered from heart disease for at least 20 years before he died at age 81 from a massive coronary while waiting in the grocery store checkout line. • Now that I have children, I often think of my father, his unhealthy lifestyle and what I can do to combat the heart disease that runs in my family. My answer: Help my kids develop what I think of as their own "exercise genes'' that will steer them toward a lifetime of healthy habits — and fun, too.
A MORNING RITUAL
At 6 a.m., my 9-year-old son is still sound asleep, but his socks, shorts, shirt and running shoes are laid out on his dresser, next to his favorite book, The Animal Encyclopedia. I give Kai a little nudge, and when that doesn't work, lean close to his ear and growl like bear.
"A big, bad grizzly has come to eat the Indian brave . . . ," I say. He stirs and then smiles. "Roar!"
Five minutes later, we are out the door. We walk the first 100 feet and discuss our mission. Some days we pretend that we are the Last of the Mohicans. On others, we are Maasai warriors running across the plains of West Africa.
Our 2-mile route is familiar, but always subject to change. Sometimes we head down side streets, looking for pirate treasure or a hidden desert oasis. But we always end up at the same spot, the stop sign that serves as a finish line one block from our house.
"The old guy is going to win," I say as we sprint the last 100 feet.
He takes off and finishes a few steps ahead of me. "You win again," I say, feigning disappointment.
Kai holds his fist up to mine. We bump. "Live strong," he says. "Live strong," I reply.
COACH AND CHEERLEADER
Sure, the morning ritual would be simpler if I had only my own health to worry about. At 49 years old and 20 pounds over my college rugby weight, I know I can't slack off if I want to enjoy a better quality of life than my dad did.
Devising workout plans for myself, my son and my 6-year-old daughter sometimes means three separate sessions.
But the kids help me as much as I help them, since they always inspire me to think of new ways to make our workouts fun and challenging.
For my son, I am part coach, part training partner. My daughter is a different story.
Some days she is waiting at the door, ready to go for her shorter route after the boys finish their run. Other days, she can't be bothered, and makes it clear she doesn't find her father's adventure stories one bit amusing.
What works for Nia? She needs a cheerleader, not a coach.
"Princess Power!" I yell as she shuffles along. "One more block for a new world record!"
We run for just 10 minutes before she decides it's time to do something else. But next week, it may be 15. And before she knows it, she'll be running her first 5K, just like her brother.
My own workout comes later in the day, when I usually swim for an hour or take off on my stand-up paddleboard. I go longer and harder on my own than with the kids. But spending time with Kai and Nia, seeing them discover the power and speed of their own bodies? That gets my heart pumping in another way entirely.
MIX IT UP
I never wanted to be that crazy dad who yells from the sidelines and embarrasses his kids at soccer games. Exercise shouldn't feel like work. It should be fun.
So we don't run every day. I am happy if the kids pound the pavement three or four days a week. But my son's third-grade teacher says she always knows when he's had his morning run, since he's more alert and engaged on those days.
Whether you're a kid or an adult, you never want exercise to become drudgery. That is why I vary what we do. Sometimes we paddle canoes, kayaks or SUPs. Other days we might go for a hike along a nature trail.
Actor Clint Eastwood, the ultimate ironman, just turned 80. He once said that the secret to fitness is just doing something physical every day.
It's also great to have a partner who is committed to fitness. My wife, Kanika, walks with the kids while they ride skateboards or scooters around the neighborhood after dinner. She gets her workout, and the kids see that both their parents are committed to Team Tomalin's fitness.
To me, the greatest Father's Day gift would be knowing that whatever genetic burdens I passed to my kids would be balanced out by helping them develop a "gene'' for fitness — one that they pass along to their own children.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org