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.")