Helping Children Stay Fit and Healthy
By Cynthia Wallace
An active lifestyle and nutritious diet can help youngsters avoid serious health problems later in life.
Many things children do during their leisure time these days are sedentary. Among their favorite pastimesknown as "screen time"are watching television, videos, and DVD's; playing computer games; and surfing the Internet.
That youngsters don't get much exercise sitting in front of a TV or computer screen is evident in the growing percentage of overweight children across the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1971 to 2002 the percentage of overweight children between 6 and 11 years old quadrupled and the percentage more than doubled among adolescents between 11 and 19. In all, by 2002, nearly nine and a half million young people16 percentwere overweight.
An overweight child is at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. However, the health risks are even more dangerous for overweight teens, who are likely to soon become overweight adults. As adults, they'll be at risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, gall bladder disease, breathing problems, arthritis, and psychological disorders such as depression.
Parents and other significant adults can help children avoid the health risks that accompany lack of physical activity and poor nutrition in a number of key ways:
Encourage children to get enough exercise.
It's important that children obtain a minimum amount of regular exercise. To stay fit, the CDC recommends that children be physically active for at least an hour nearly every day.
However, this level may be too much for some children to achieve all at once, advises Dr. Mary Gavin, a pediatrician at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del. She suggests parents begin by setting realistic goals for their children.
"If the child is only active 10 minutes a day, then your short-term goal is to see if he can get up to 20 minutes a day, then try for 30 minutes and more," she recommends.
Teach through example.
A parent can get a child to exercise by serving as a role model. "If you're sitting down, watching television, and eating a bag of chips, and you tell your child to go out and exercise...the child's going to say, 'Yeah, right,'" Dr. Gavin says. But parents can get results if they set an example by playing an active role in their children's fitness.
"You can't just tell kids that being active is fun. Kids do what they see, and you really have to show them," says Ken Germano, president of the American Council on Exercise. With a parent involved, he says, "biking, hiking, dancing, sledding, in-line skating will become lifetime activities for the child."
Deb Forbes and her husband, Joe, of Putnam Valley, N.Y., want their children, Emma, 13, and Colin, 10, to be active. So they have a home rule of "no screens" during the week, and they lead the way with physical activities.
"We play games, take the dogs for a walk, play catch, ride bikes, and go fishing in the nearby lakes," Deb says. And with parental encouragement, Emma and Colin also enjoy organized sports, like swimming and lacrosse. Although Emma says the "no screens" rule can be "annoying," she admits she's usually too busy to be bothered by it.
Provide healthy foods.
Fast foods and sweetened soft drinks are available just about everywhere and load youngsters' diets with calories, fat, processed carbohydrates, and sugar, all of which put them at greater risk of becoming overweight.
Again, parental involvement is a key to getting children to eat healthier foods, Dr. Gavin says. "The parent has to take the lead and stock the house with healthy food."
That's essentially what Joe Montouri and his wife, Suzanne Walsh, are doing as they raise three sons, Patrick, 10, Brendan, 7, and Kieran, 1, in Mahopac, N.Y.
"We're not 'extremists' when it comes to nutrition, but we do pretty well" in that "I don't buy a lot of junk [food]," Montouri says. "We try not to take the children shopping with us. And we eat balanced meals and healthy snacks." Typical after-school snacks for the children are cheese and crackers, sliced apples, or popcorn, he notes.
Have family meals at home.
While the demands of parental work and youth activity schedules can make it difficult to arrange, sitting down for family meals at home is an excellent way to guide a child toward a healthy diet.
Research has shown that when families don't eat together at home, the children often get their meals at fast-food restaurants. A Department of Agriculture study of 6,000 children in the late 1990's found that 30 percent of the children surveyed ate fast food every day. And for 38 percent of those, fast food was their main source of nutrition. The same study found that these children ate fewer fruits and vegetables and more fried food and soda than children eating family meals.
Whenever the family eats together at home, parents act as role models, making food choices they hope their children will continue to make when they're away from home.
But that's not all: Lessons learned at the family dinner table have the promise of going far beyond healthy food choices.
"When the children become teenagers and there are issues of drugs, smoking, and alcohol, studies have shown that a teen who sits down regularly at a family meal is less likely to partake in those behaviors," Dr. Gavin states. "I think that has to do with the involvement of a parent who cares. They're more connected. There are so many benefits of eating together and being active together. It's incredible what these things can achieve."
By engaging in a physical activity themselves and preparing healthy meals at home, parents stand the best chance of getting their children to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
An additional benefit for these children is that they will have healthier parents!
Cynthia Wallace is a writer living in New York State. She also wrote the Family Talk column in the May-June 2004 issue, "Helping Children Take Care of Pets."
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