Playing with children adds value not only for children but also for adult caregivers. Image Credit: Pexels

My 4-year-old granddaughter, Lucia, and I are once again getting athletic together.

One minute we're kicking around a soccer ball, the next we're shooting miniature basketballs. Later, with me holding her hand, she'll teeter-totter atop a foot-high stone wall along our driveway. Tomorrow, we'll probably have a pillow fight and chase each other around the backyard. Meantime, I'm ready for a beer.

Make no mistake: Helping to raise your grandchildren is a workout, and routine tasks such as lifting, carrying and following younger children around all day or night can be pretty strenuous. But research suggests that grandparents who play regularly with grandkids stay active and healthy longer and - bonus points - live longer.

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Getting physical also promotes advantages well beyond the merely physical. Through one-on-one physical play together, grandparents and grandchildren can get to better know, understand and appreciate each other. It's inherently social, mentally stimulating, lends your life an extra sense of purpose and meaning, and can establish a wholesome lifetime relationship.

"Playing with children adds value not only for children but also for adult caregivers," according to "The Power of Play," a 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Adults can "reexperience or reawaken the joy of their own childhood and rejuvenate themselves. . . . Play enables children and adults to be passionately and totally immersed in an activity of their choice and to experience intense joy."

These findings are fortuitous. Grandparents today can expect to live longer than previous generations, and they may have more time available to play than parents.

"Grandparents make wonderful playmates," says Michael Yogman, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and lead author of "The Power of Play," who himself has two grandchildren, ages 2 and 4. "We have so many opportunities to play a huge role. I say, 'Go for it!'"

Building an active family culture

Physical play between grandparents and grandchildren remains little researched, but a University of Glasgow study showed how grandparents "contribute to a family culture of physical activity."

The project enlisted five three-generation families, each with at least one child, one parent and one grandparent, that identified as physically active. Researchers observed the individuals taking physical activity classes together. The grandparents came to recognize physical play as a key element in the role of looking after grandchildren. Such play built connections between generations and motivated grandparents all the more to stay active.

"Grandparents often play a key role in shaping attitudes toward physical activity in family cultures," says Michael Rogers, a professor of human performance studies and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University. "They can be role models in transmitting an active lifestyle. They legitimize it for future generations as a worthwhile practice for staying healthy."

In Belgium, researchers at Vrije Universiteit Brussel have undertaken the Healthy Grandparenting Project. Among residents of Belgium age 50 and older, an estimated 62 percent of men and 70 percent of women are grandparents, one of the highest rates in Europe. More than half of those grandparents (53 percent) look after grandchildren, averaging 13 hours of child care in a typical week.

The two-year study - possibly the first of its kind and set to conclude next year - will compare three populations: caregiving grandparents, non-caregiving grandparents and non-grandparents. It will test 276 participants, half men and half women, with all grandchildren involved no older than age 5.

Researchers plan to measure levels of physical activity (light, moderate and vigorous) as well as sedentary behavior, body composition and quality of life. The purpose is to learn whether - and how - physical activity in grandparents increases and then design a national campaign to help adults of advanced age maintain and improve health.

Social, cognitive benefits

Ghent University, also in Belgium, recently developed an intergenerational initiative, now almost halfway complete, called the Grandpact Project. The goal is to promote physical activity between grandparents and grandchildren.

Researchers reported in a published study that the program is expected not only to improve physical activity and cognitive function in grandparents but also motivation, psychosocial well-being and - best of all - the quality of the grandchild-grandparent relationship.

"Bringing grandparents and grandchildren together to be active is expected to foster meaningful social interactions and promote mutual learning and understanding," says Greet Cardon, a professor at the school who leads the project. "It may also lead to children growing up with a more positive attitude toward older adults."

On the flip side, one study suggests that grandparents, particularly grandmothers, gain health benefits merely from showing up to take care of grandchildren, even without being physically active.

A survey funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in the United Kingdom queried 8,972 grandmothers and 6,567 grandfathers age 50 and over, who had at least one grandchild and lived in Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and Sweden. The researchers found that grandmothers who provided child care - whether frequently or infrequently - had "significantly higher physical health scores" than those who provided none.

Looking after grandchildren, they concluded, may inspire grandparents to maintain or even increase healthy behaviors, including physical activity.

Other research reinforces these results. One study found that half of grandparents who directly interacted with grandchildren were more likely to be alive five years later than those who remained uninvolved. Another concluded that grandparents who watched their grandchildren registered higher scores on cognitive tests than those who never reported for duty.

Keeping safe, avoiding injury

Grandparents should follow certain practical guidelines to avoid injury and stay safe.

In playing with grandchildren, you should do as you do with any exercise, experts say. Start slow. Go easy. Take breaks. Factor in your general fitness level and any physical conditions that could be aggravated.

Because seniors are more prone to falls, try to steer clear of moves that might heighten the risk of falling. Above all, stop before you overdo it, get tuckered out and hurt yourself.

"Moderation is key," Rogers says. "You should avoid doing too much activity to prevent yourself from getting stressed, feeling overwhelmed and suffering an injury."

Play comes in several categories, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Adults can guide the play, creating a sense of structure, or children can direct themselves, staying unstructured. Infants might like games of patty cake, while toddlers could go in for the rough-and-tumble play often seen in baby animals such as puppies and chimpanzees.

The No. 1 priority is to find an activity you both enjoy.

You could even invite your grandchild to try physical games you liked in your own childhood, such as hopscotch and "Red Light, Green Light." Other basic options are walking, running and cycling. Kids are more likely to be active outdoors than indoors, too, yielding the happy byproduct of teaching about nature while cutting into excessive screen time.

"Playing together is best for keeping kids active because kids by themselves will be less active," says Cody Neshteruk, a medical instructor who focuses on improving child and family health at the Duke University School of Medicine. "It's the difference between your saying, 'Go play,' and both of you going out to play."

As it has turned out, our Lucia is game for frolicking in all forms. She exults in playing catch or tag or hide-and-seek or even trying her hand at tennis, so much so that she often begs me to play with her - and then, once we start, to keep going approximately forever.

Being her private phys ed teacher, and setting an example she might find worth emulating, makes me happy beyond words.

As luck would have it, she's also helping me keep shipshape, despite my age (71), my borderline high cholesterol and blood pressure, and a minor heart procedure two years ago.

Better yet, we're both soon going to get a new playmate. Next month we're expecting to welcome a grandson - her baby brother - who will surely double our fun.