One in five children living in the United States is overweight, with one in ten classified as seriously obese; these statistics reflect the rise in obesity rates around the world. Sadly, the increasing number of primary school children that are overweight will often carry that weight into the teen years and beyond. And it’s not just about a child’s appearance. As body fat levels increase, so does the risk of developing a number of illnesses and diseases that can dramatically reduce the quality and length of life. Inactive kids with weaker muscles and bones are more prone to injuries, and all in lives so young. Some health experts have already described childhood obesity as an epidemic and forecast that our future health system will struggle to cope with the problems this creates. As a parent, can you afford to just sit back and wait for that “puppy fat” to melt away? Excess weight that goes unchecked in childhood will be very difficult to lose in adulthood.
What can parents do?
Excess weight and body fat are symptoms. For many children, poor food choices and a sedentary lifestyle are the causes. Getting children to eat better and exercise more is universally accepted as essential for weight management in children as well as adults. And while teachers, schools, coaches, doctors, and grandparents all have roles to play, it’s ultimately parents who can have the biggest influence. The support and understanding that only a parent can give provides a unique opportunity to lead children toward a happy and healthy future.
As a parent, your knowledge of nutrition, the foods you provide, the example that you set, and your attitude toward exercise will have a strong influence over the health of your child. Parents buy the foods and fill the lunch boxes.
There are also several issues facing the parents of overweight children. You may feel reluctant to discuss the problem with your child to avoid embarrassment. There is the worry that your child might be teased and bullied. Heavy children are at an increased risk of low self-image because of the social emphasis on being slim. Food is also a complicated issue, with eating disorders now being seen in children as young as nine. There are also emotional, medical, and environmental factors to consider. Either way, you must address the causes to change the symptoms. Strict diets and fanatical exercise programs will not work for children. Fortunately, being overweight in childhood does not always carry a life sentence.
It all starts in the home
Parents have a dramatic influence on the health of their young children, because a child’s brain is very impressionable. The majority of what children know about food and their attitude toward it, they learn unconsciously by watching their parents. Children emulate their parents, so in order to deal with obesity in their children, parents also need to address their own attitudes. It’s vital that parents develop an awareness of the example they set in the home. And the sooner the better, because children who practice healthy habits early in life are much more likely to continue those habits through their teen years and into adulthood. With the holiday season upon us, there’s no better time than now to make some adjustments to the eating and exercise habits of your family.
Be an active role model
Parents need to exercise both for themselves and to motivate their children to exercise. Parents can talk about the traits and values that make regular activity enjoyable, such as good sportsmanship and teamwork. Parents who encourage their children to take up a sport and also provide transportation, financial support, and a “do your best” attitude, increase their children’s chances of finding a sport they enjoy.
It’s also important to praise children for the positive aspects of their performance, no matter who wins. By providing some yard space for play, along with simple, inexpensive play equipment, parents can consciously create a culture of physical activity in the home.
Parent and kids exercising together
A supportive family can make all the difference when it comes to losing weight and exercising more. The following is a list of activities where both parents and kids can all get involved together.
1. Visit your local park. Dust off your picnic basket, and make the most of your local park. Activities, games, and free play give you a chance to have fun and interact with your family in the great outdoors. Some activity ideas include kite flying, Frisbee, T-ball, soccer, bike riding, and rollerblading. And remember to take along the sunscreen and a healthy lunch.
2. Visit the beach. Whether you are on vacation or live near the ocean, there’s something for everyone at the beach. Most activities require little or no equipment, and some you can do all year round. Some popular favorites include bodysurfing, body boarding, walking and running on the sand or in ankle- to knee-deep water, surfing, paddling, swimming in the ocean, and beach volleyball.
3. Go on a family hiking adventure. Hiking is a great way to get active with your family, whether it’s on a trail through a national park or just a trek through some local wilderness. It costs next to nothing, and you can choose terrain that will suit all ages and levels of fitness. Make sure to wear good-quality footwear, and pack plenty of water and healthy snacks. Why not get out and explore this weekend?
4. Play ball. There’s a wide variety of ball games to suit all ages and skill levels, including soccer, baseball, volleyball, touch football, basketball, and tennis. It’s a great way to have fun and learn new skills while improving fitness and strength. Include your friends, neighbors, and extended family, and make it a regular event. Be sure to warm up properly and stretch afterwards to avoid injury and soreness.
5. Try some extertainment. There’s a new and increasing range of video games and exercise machines that almost “trick” you into being active. One example is an exercise bike that’s connected to a television screen, and the faster you pedal, the further you progress in a computer generated race. In addition, the Wii console has a motion sensitive remote and footplate that allows you to play tennis and improve your balance. It’s unlikely that these types of games will be enough to help the family lose weight on their own, but it’s a fun way for the family to spend time together, rather than sitting on the couch.
Eat well, and involve your children
Food is a major contributor to the problem of overweight children, and it’s also a big part of the solution. Parents need to gradually improve both their children’s nutrition habits and their own, focusing on long-term healthy eating, not dieting. Following are some steps parents can take to improve the nutritional status of the whole family.
1. Do a kitchen audit. Take a look at what foods are in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Make sure the family has access to healthy foods and snacks, and don’t allow junk food to be a choice.
2. Eat as a family. Eat together as a family at the dinner table, and turn off the TV while you’re eating. This allows you to watch closely what and how much your child eats and lets you share some quality time together.
3. Let them choose. Offer your children a few healthy choices for some of their lunches and evening meals. If they’re involved in deciding what they’ll eat, even if it’s only between two healthy choices, they’ll be more likely to eat it.
4. Let them cook. Depending on the age of your children, they can help prepare many meals. If they make it, they’ll probably eat it. Reading recipes and learning cooking basics also teaches them important skills they can use in adulthood.
5. Grow a vegetable garden. Involve your kids in planting, watering, and harvesting your own fresh herbs and vegetables. Children will be more interested in eating vegetables if they helped to grow them.
Parents Blinded by the Bulge
A serious problem associated with childhood obesity is the inability of parents to recognize that their child has a weight problem. A report presented to the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in 2002 found more than 70 percent of parents of overweight children said that their child’s weight was not a health problem. Parents should check with their doctor, who can use a chart to find out if their child might be overweight.