07/19/2013 08:14 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Family-Style Fitness

In the already overcrowded schedules that rule most of our lives, attempting to include workout time may seem impossible. Whether one is a soccer parent driving from one after-school activity to another, racing to prepare dinner, do the laundry, walk the dog and then help the kids with homework after a long commute from work -- whatever your burden, spending time in the gym seems as remote as walking on the moon. And unless the kids are on an after-school team, their opportunity to exercise may be limited to a few physical education sessions per week. Playing in the backyard with friends or riding around the neighborhood on bikes seems to be a thing of movies and books from long ago. In addition, many who may have the time to exercise are not able to afford membership at a health club.

Walking as an exercise option is appealing if you live in an attractive neighborhood with well-lit sidewalks (and shoveled sidewalks during the winter), a climate that doesn't roast you or freeze you depending on the season and is clean (doesn't choke you with bus fumes and/or trip you with litter). You may not want to take your young children with you on your power walk if they are too big for a stroller and too small for a jog. This means a nanny onsite, or waiting until an adult or older child is at home to baby sit, and for whom is that really feasible?

If we are really serious about doing (rather than talking about) something to reverse the unfitness of many Americans, we need to have places to exercise that are inexpensive or free, convenient and open when families have the time to use them.

Why not use schools? By 3 or 4 p.m., the playgrounds and gyms of elementary and high schools are empty or used only for team practice. This may not best use all of the available space. Schools with classrooms containing movable desks and chairs could be used for exercise classes like yoga or Zumba taught by volunteers or trained physical education instructors. An empty gym could be the site for games, gymnastics and balance-and-muscle strengthening. (A small fee to participate would be necessary to cover the cost of using the school, hiring instructors and covering liability.) Family members, young and old, could participate in age-appropriate workouts. The carpooling parent might be able to get some exercise while his or her offspring is running around a basketball court or doing sprints on the football field. Other siblings, perhaps not inspired by a competitive team sport, could also participate in activities compatible with their expertise and interests. Obviously, the moms and kids would be in separate areas.

Adding sports, exercise classes and even cardiovascular equipment to schools is costly. But wouldn't this front-end cost be balanced by the probable decrease in the medical costs of obesity and poor fitness? Although the YMCA is a relatively inexpensive place where families can exercise, there are fewer of them in neighborhoods than schools, and many of their programs for kids and teens fill up quickly. Schools could fill in this gap by providing an inexpensive place where the whole family could become more fit.

One complaint associated with late afternoon/early evening exercise is, "When can I make and serve dinner to my family?" What if these schools-turned-fitness centers also provided family-style dinners? Schools have cafeterias and lunchrooms, so the facilities are already available. Imagine dropping into the school/fitness center at 5 p.m., working out while your kids are also playing or participating in sports, and then sitting down for a healthful and delicious dinner at a minimal cost? Or if you get home late, meeting your kids at the school after their workouts and then having dinner. Additionally, making schools Wi-Fi accessible and having reliable babysitting and parking available at such centers may draw people who never considered the possibility of exercise. These school/community centers could be open during the weekends, and like community centers of yore, perhaps provide movies, bingo, arts-and-crafts workshops, cooking classes and demonstrations on gardening and DIY home repairs.

One argument, other than the cost, will be related to services that schools should or should not provide. But think of this. Schools are already providing services that were probably unheard of when public education became nationally available. Hot lunches and breakfasts are common, school nurses handle minor medical problems and school psychologists often work with parents as well as kids to solve learning and emotional issues. Indeed, during natural catastrophes, schools are often opened as shelters. Moreover, some schools function as day camps during the summer, especially if they feature well-equipped playing fields and playgrounds. So it is not entirely farfetched to expand the use of these buildings to provide fitness opportunities, not only the students, but also to their families, year round.

In this world of ever-expanding virtual activities, being able to go to a neighborhood center -- where several generations can congregate, participate in exercise and other activities, share a meal and maybe even a movie -- could have benefits that go far beyond a toned body and weight loss. You might make great new friends!

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.