It used to be that children never seemed to stop moving. Most of today’s parents probably remember their childhood involving daylong games of tag, biking long distances to friends’ homes or pick-up games of baseball, basketball and soccer.
But their children often have a different reality. Fewer neighborhood green spaces and parental fears of letting children wander too far from home are combining with an increase in time spent at the computer, playing video games or watching television.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the average child is watching about three hours of television a day. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the average child spends 5 1/2 hours on all media combined. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for exercise.
The sedentary lifestyle and eating habits that include unhealthy snack foods and super-sized portions are adding up to a growing obesity problem among U.S. children in the United States. The number of overweight children has doubled in the last few years to one child in five.
Not only are overweight children at risk for health problems, they are also more likely to suffer the effects of being teased by their peers and treated differently by teachers and other adults. A review of studies published in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that overweight children are often the last to be chosen as playmates and many teachers harbor negative views of them, seeing them as “untidy” or less likely to succeed than thinner students. This social stigma can lead to unhealthy dieting habits and eating disorders, affect learning, and make the child more prone to depression and substance abuse.
Further aggravating the problem, children who are teased for not being athletic are less likely to engage in exercise that would lead them to be embarrassed in front of their peers. So getting an already inactive, overweight child to begin an exercise program can be a daunting task.
“Parents need to be sensitive to their child’s concerns and develop an exercise program they will enjoy and continue,” said Heidi Kaufman, a nutritionist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center who counsels children and families on eating and exercise. “It’s a good idea for parents to exercise with their kids at least a couple times a week,” Kaufman said. “Biking is a good family activity that doesn’t require the child to be in front of a group. They might also enjoy walking, dancing at home, or joining a gym and having their own personal trainer.”
To get the recommended minimum of an hour of exercise every day, it helps to have regularly scheduled activities, particularly for children who don’t naturally want to go out and run around. Overweight children may shy away from team sports, but really enjoy martial arts, tennis, swimming or skating activities.
“Parents need to set a good example and make exercising and eating right a priority,” said Kaufman. “It will make a long-term difference in their child’s health and well-being.”NHRMC offers nutritional and exercise counseling for families who need help. To make an appointment, call 343-7087.Help your children maintain a healthy body weightBased on tips from the National Institutes of Health
Be supportive. Children know if they are overweight and don't need to be reminded or singled out. They need acceptance, encouragement and love.
Set guidelines for the amount of time your children can spend watching television or playing video games.
Plan family activities that involve exercise. Instead of watching TV, go hiking or biking, wash the car, or walk around a mall. Offer choices and let your children decide.
Be sensitive. Find activities your children will enjoy that aren't difficult or could cause embarrassment.
Eat meals together as a family and eat at the table, not in front of a television. Eat slowly and enjoy the food.
Don't use food as a reward or punishment. Children should not be placed on restrictive diets, unless done so by a doctor (for medical reasons). Children need food for growth, development and energy.
Involve your children in meal planning and grocery shopping. This helps them learn and gives them a role in the decision making.
Keep healthy snacks on hand. Good options include fruits, vegetables, cheese, yogurt, frozen fruit juice bars, and nuts.
Focus on small, gradual changes in eating and activity patterns. This helps form habits that can last a lifetime.