We Didn’t Call It Physical Fitness


“We arrived at our campsite just in time for supper. We cooked it over a campfire—it was good. We made lean-to’s and rolled out our sleeping bags. I should have brought the extra blanket you wanted me to carry. It was so cold I almost froze!

“I didn’t sleep even 15 minutes—I guess I was too excited. About 6 A.M. we all cleaned up our camp areas, buried our fires, and got ready to go. We didn’t eat very much breakfast—I guess we were too cold. We hiked seven miles to the base of the mountain where we were going to go rappelling. It didn’t seem far.

“About ten of the kids wanted to stay at the bottom. We talked four of them into coming up with us. We had to pull ourselves up with ropes—I almost fell twice. The group I was with sat down to rest about halfway up. I didn’t want to wait, so I went by myself and got lost. I went all over the mountain before I finally came to the place we were to rappel from. It really looked exciting.

“I decided to go up to wait for my turn. On the way up a big hard wind came up. I had to wait a long, long time, but finally it was my turn. Shelly strapped me up. I wasn’t scared ’cause Kim was holding me from one side and Dave the other, and Heavenly Father was all around me. I did what they told me to. I walked the cliff for about 90 feet and then there was a 60-foot free fall. I came down steady and even. And everybody told me I did well.”

It was the first time our 12-year-old daughter had been rappelling, and when we went to pick her up, the first thing she did was run to us, put her arms around us both, and, with tears in her eyes, thank us for allowing her to have one of the most beautiful experiences of her life.

Whatever it was that gave her the courage to rappel when she had never tried it and the urge to quit was so strong among the group, I’ll never know for sure. But my husband and I felt that perhaps our efforts to encourage physical fitness had not been in vain.

I can’t even remember where or when we started such encouragement, but somewhere along the line we discovered children need a time and a place in which to move! Without a place, they move around anyway—jumping on the beds, climbing on the bookcase, sliding down the basement stairs, etc. So we began to look for areas inside and outside our home that would provide an outlet for their energy.

We bought an old mattress for five dollars at the Goodwill Store, and it went into the basement for a tumbling mat. A trip to the store helped furnish a swing set and “monkey-bars” for outside. We thought we were set, but the basement was too far out of the way. Unless we were down there with them, it didn’t get used as much as we thought it would. The place they wanted to be was right under Mom’s feet! So the tumbling mat was dragged to its place of honor, which was wherever I happened to be, despite the fact that it did not match the surrounding decor. Thus I learned rule number one about family physical fitness: children need either an appreciative audience or the company of others around them. We moved the play equipment close to the kitchen window so when I was scrubbing potatoes our children could at least receive an admiring “Wow!” as they hung by their knees from the climbing bars.

Rule number two: variety sustains the interest. Always sending children out to play can sometimes be construed as a punishment for activities too vigorous for inside the house. Try sitting down at the piano instead (or turn on a favorite record) and begin with a good strong march beat. It has never failed to channel our children’s chaos into regulated rhythm. Hand them a tambourine and a maraca to shake, and watch them beg for more. Our little tykes would go around and around until we were all exhausted. Contention was exhausted, too, and their cheeks were pink, their eyes clear and bright, and comradery was dear. It hadn’t occurred to us to label it as an exercise in physical fitness, but that’s what it was. We all needed that break in our day and we were fulfilled, not only physically, but emotionally and socially as well.

We kept on adding equipment: a watering trough for cattle became a swimming pool for our children. We filled it with the garden hose, pushed the children’s slide half in, half out, and then placed the hose on top of the slide, turned on the water, and watched the fun begin. We didn’t dare wait too long to run for our swimsuits because anyone nearby would soon be soaking wet. Besides—no one can just sit there and watch!

Then there was the day I got my first bike. It was my birthday. The children all wore grins too wide for their small faces. My husband, Ron, was putting a blindfold (of all things) over my eyes. I was led outdoors, down the walk, into the back yard, over the fence, and into a small barn. Oooohs and aaaaahs from the girls gave me a hint that I’d like what I’d see. With a dramatic gesture Ron flipped the blindfold off and there, in front of me, was a shiny blue bike. I couldn’t wait to get on it and then, of course, everyone was “dibbsy-dubbsing” his turn to ride. Every chance I got I’d sneak out for a turn around the farm. As birthdays and Christmases came and went from then on, the suggestion was thrown far and wide by every member of the family for a bike of his own. And thus we have rule number three: whet the appetite, create the desire! Coupled with this is: let them earn what they yearn. Ron challenged them to work and earn enough to pay at least half of the cost, and he would pay the rest.

It took an entire summer of painting bee-boards, killing bugs, picking cherries, gathering and selling the eggs, weeding the garden, and cleaning the yard before enough was accumulated for a trip to the store. It was to be their privilege to pick out the bicycles and add the accessories, complete with a place to carry a picnic lunch. From then on we were on bikes almost every spare minute.

It was when the smaller children began to get a little older that we noticed a generation gap seeping in. Ron was feeding the cattle at 5 A.M., teaching seminary at 7 A.M., teaching school during the day, and carrying a priesthood assignment at night. Somewhere along the line, we decided that if we didn’t make the next move toward the family, the family would be moving away from us, grown and gone before we knew it. So we thought of ways of being together, not in the same room to watch television, but where the atmosphere promoted giving a listening ear, planning together, active interaction, a freedom from routine, and relaxation for the mind and body.

At the time I was interested in sewing with knits, and I got so excited I made all of us sweaters and stretch pants that matched while Ron equipped those family members who didn’t already have them with bikes.

We would get dressed up, stack the bikes in the pick-up, and head for a section of town we weren’t familiar with. Then away we’d go. Was it always coincidental that the section of town just happened to have an ice cream shop?

Nobody ever called it physical fitness, but that’s what it was. Three more children have come to bless our home, and each has a bike, even our two-year-old. It is a ready source of activity, a great boon to the gas shortage, and a way to get away from it all. Many a mother-and-daughter talk have taken place under the guise of “Come on—I’ll race you down the road.” And a spin down the road and back wears off irritation that everyone experiences from time to time.

Another activity our family has really enjoyed began the year we drove 100 miles to see the Ice Capades. Little did we realize what poor spectators we were. As we watched the skaters glide around the arena we experienced something a little short of pain. We were just itching to be on those skates ourselves.

The first thing we did when we got home was open the mail-order catalogue. Ahhh! Something better than ice skates, something we could use all year—roller skates! We ordered a pair for everybody, and Ron checked the schedule in the city gym. We practiced standing on the skates at home, moving gingerly across the carpet in the living room. Then off we went in our matching sweaters to the skating rink. Music played, and after a few stops and starts we were all gliding along in an evening of pure enjoyment. It was so much fun that we invited other families to join us and rented the gym just for our group. Before long, Ron was calling for bids on a huge patio and we soon had our own skating rink right outside the door.

It wasn’t labeled an exercise in physical fitness, but that is what it was and still is. We have skates that fit just about any size foot that steps into our home. And this brings us to rule number four: choose activities that are most readily accessible. It might be golf, tennis, or horseback riding, but choose something you can participate in more than once or twice a year.

We have tried to add something each year for Christmas. We’ve installed a fitness apparatus (bolted to the side of the house) that includes a climbing rope, shinny pole, horizontal bar, trapeze, chinning bar, rings, etc. We’ve built a tree house that can be entered only by climbing a rope, climbing the tree, or setting the monkeybars close enough to it to climb into it. Ron has purchased knapsacks for each of us, and we’ve gone hiking, picnicking, boating, swimming, and water skiing together. But nothing is used as much as our trampoline. We’ve had it almost five years now, and as long as the weather is above freezing it is in use.

We padded the bars all around the mat, set up some strict ground rules, and so far have not had any accidents. It has served any number of purposes: no ants, dogs, or cats can get at your hotdog if you are picnicking on top of the trampoline. It is a great place to throw sleeping bags during the summer nights when a friend is visiting, and comradery is fostered when Dad teaches Scott new tricks or when Mom bounces hand-in-hand with Mary.

For the winter months, we graduated last year from the mattress to a regular tumbling mat complete with decorator colors that match the family room. It is on the floor a great deal, always handy for a cartwheel toward the breakfast table or a series of backward rolls—until Mother notices the dishes haven’t been done. The important thing is that it’s handy and it’s underfoot! If you want equipment to be used, those are the two most important qualifications. It’s also handy for sleep-ins. Many nights we’ve built a fire in the fireplace, roasted marshmallows, wrestled and tussled on the mat, then brought in the pillows, threw on a blanket or two, turned out all the lights, and told stories by firelight. About 2 A.M., an elbow or a kick in the rib will send a few stumbling off to their own beds, but what fun it is to tussle and snuggle with Dad and Mom on a handy mat on the floor!

Certainly life isn’t one continual round of fun and games. Our children would be the first to point out the early hour at which they arise, the amount of work and practice they put in before school even begins, the homework, the lessons, the family work projects such as painting the house, spring cleaning it, changing water, weeding, etc., that bring aching muscles and blisters to the hands. Ron and I are active in the Church and of necessity are gone at times to board meetings, home teaching assignments, and to conferences. During these times the older girls do a great deal of home management. But you can only bend a bow for just so long. If you don’t want it to lose its power, the tension must be released from time to time.

We have grown in our understanding of our needs and those of our children and have discovered for ourselves that physical fitness is vital to spiritual fitness. It takes a strong physical body to fully exercise our faculties toward their rightful use. I believe this is what our daughter felt as she passed through the extremely difficult circumstances of rappelling only to think back on it as one of the most beautiful experiences of her life. Her habit of participating rather than spectating sustained her when part of the group turned back. Her discoveries throughout her life that she could skate, ride a bike, swim, play a musical instrument, jump on a trampoline, or weed a whole acre of beets gave her the courage to try rappelling. She was used to trusting those who encouraged her.

We hope that each one of us will be able to run toward our Father in heaven after we have finished this experience on earth, throw our arms around him, and, with tears in our eyes, thank him for allowing us to have one of the most beautiful experiences of our eternal life!

Sherri Zirker is the mother of nine children, four of whom are foster children, and serves as music director for the Warden Ward and on the Primary stake board in Moses Lake Washington Stake. The Zirkers were the all-American family from the state of Washington in 1971.