HEYWORTH — Ron and Laura Bass and their children went for a walk but there was more going than an evening stroll.

It was a nature hike as the Bass family — including children Noah, 11; Joshua, 9; and Campbell, 6 — walked on a trail in the Kenneth L. Schroeder Wildlife Sanctuary north of Heyworth, with the children pointing out plant life, spying critters and running their fingers through creek water.

"I like finding deer footprints," said Campbell, as she walked with her hiking stick. "We found a deer one time and today we found a field mouse!"

"My favorite thing is putting my hands in the water," Joshua said.

"I like tossing hedge apples," admitted Noah with a smile.

The Downs family chatted as they walked, and Joshua and Campbell even walked with their arms around each other.

But the real reason the Bass family went for a walk was to get exercise.

"I like our time together while we're doing something active as a family," Laura said. "We're talking as a family and nobody is distracted with other things."

"Regardless of everyone's mood before the hike, afterward everyone feels better, there is a sense of accomplishment and our mood is better," said her husband.

Central Illinois families, here's your health and fitness prescription for summer 2017: Be physically active as a family, because your kids soon won't have the benefit of physical education classes for nearly three months.

"Physical activity for everybody is the perfect medicine," said Michael Jennings, a physical education teacher at Unit 5's George Evans Junior High School. "If you want to lose weight, if you want to improve this or that," physical activity has to be part of the equation.

"If kids are physically inactive during summer, they come back (in August) more lethargic," Jennings said. "It's harder for them to run that first mile, they're more exhausted playing badminton..."

Kids who play outdoors during summer "get right back into PE at the beginning of the school year," noted Jori Cooper, PE teacher at Heyworth High School and health teacher at Heyworth Junior High and High School.

"If they're not physically active during summer, they're more physically drained during (PE) activity," said Matt Willey, PE teacher at Bloomington Junior High School. "They're not acclimated to the heat."

"They are miserable until their body acclimates," said Ron Bass, also a BJHS physical education teacher.

We shouldn't give kids a summer break "because their health can't wait," Cooper said.

Physical education teachers agree the best way for kids to be active outside this summer is for their parents to join them as often as possible.

Long-term physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers and lower back pain. There are immediate health benefits, too.

"Physical activity helps you to sleep better at night, it clears your head, it boosts your metabolism and helps with digestion," Jennings said. "Even walking 20 minutes a day helps."

When people exercise, the body releases endorphins that induce good feelings.

"You feel better about yourself, which helps with stress management," Cooper said.

"Exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in kids," Jennings said. "Kids who are active generally have higher self-esteem."

"People who exercise are sharper cognitively than if they didn't exercise," Bass said. "Chemicals are released in the brain that benefit your ability to learn.

"The more aerobic activity kids do, the more brain-derived neurotrophic factor is produced in the brain, which results in more neuro-connections, which means more learning can take place." Bass said. "Their brains are primed and ready to learn."

That helps kids and adults at work, school and elsewhere, with everything from test-taking to being more efficient at work and studying, PE teachers agreed.

Other benefits of exercise are social.

"When kids go out and play, they learn social skills, they learn how to interact with one another," Bass said.

If they're making up their own game, or adapting rules of a sport to fit their circumstances or environment, they are learning problem-solving skills, compromise and communication skills that will benefit them as they grow up and into adulthood, Willey said.

"When they're showing their creative side, that can help them in physics class, in art or on the debate team," Willey said.

They suggest parents set parameters, such as asking kids to play in a specific area or asking them to play with their siblings and neighborhood friends so they aren't alone.

But the best way for parents to ensure kids' safety is for parents to join them, PE teachers said.

"You have to create time to do these things," Willey said. "After awhile, your body will want to do more. By the end of summer, your body will be craving physical activity."

"It's healthy," Joshua said. "And it's fun."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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