Uproot Your Couch Potato Kids: How Parents can Help Their Children be More Active

Has your kid become a couch potato? According to recent stats from the Centers for Disease Control, children between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of three hours watching television, videos, DVDs and movies every day - and many children watch more than that. All this inactivity is one reason today’s children are heavier than ever before.

Nearly 1 in 5 children between the ages of six and 11 are overweight, and 17.4 per cent of kids 12 through 19 fall into the overweight category. These children are more likely to be obese adults as well - CDC statistics show that 80 per cent of children who are overweight between the ages of 10 to 15 become obese by the time they’re 25 years old.

It’s more than a cosmetic problem. Overweight kids are more likely to have health issues including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and orthopedic problems in addition to poor self-esteem. A nutritious diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help children maintain healthy weights, but don’t overlook the importance of activity.

As a parent, how can you set a good example, and encourage your kids to live a more active, healthier life?

Too much food, too little inactivity

Inactivity and poor diet are two reasons for the rise in pediatric obesity, says pediatric endocrinologist Frank Diamond, MD. “We know that there is a genetic predisposition to excessive weight gain, and we’re learning every day about new biochemistry that controls the way the body manages its weight maintenance,” says Dr. Diamond. “But population changes have occurred over a period of about 25 years, and genes don’t change that fast. What appears to be happening is changes in lifestyle superimposed on a population with genetic susceptibility.”

Today’s kids burn fewer calories through physical activity than they did in the past but on average, consume more calories. While that adds up to a startling number of overweight kids, many parents may not realize that their children are overweight. A survey of more than 2,000 parents conducted last year found that more than 4 in 10 with obese, or extremely overweight, children thought their kids were “about the right weight”; another 37 per cent thought they were “slightly overweight”.

Overlooking the problem won’t make it go away, as mom Sabina Borgen realized last year. At 12 years of age, her son, Nickolas Jazinski, was noticeably overweight. “Nickolas’ self-esteem was very low, and it [his weight] was affecting his academics and his relationships with peers,” says Borgen. She enrolled him in the NEW Kids™ program last Spring, and the two of them attended the sessions together. Both mother and son learned about the importance of exercise and how to eat more healthfully, and Nickolas was given a small goal to meet each week, like performing three brief sessions of stretching.

Less than a year later, Nickolas has lost 19 pounds - while growing four inches in the process. His too-high triglycerides and cholesterol levels are now normal, and he’s become much more active. Today, he plays basketball and lifts weights four or five days a week, and walks a lot more. He’s also cut back on the time he spends playing video games.

“I feel good about myself because I look better,” says Nickolas. “My basketball skills have improved. I do not worry about getting diabetes because my lab results are very good.”

Nickolas hasn’t done it alone. “I exercise with him. We go to the YMCA and play basketball together,” she says. “We also learned about reading labels on foods, and we go to the grocery store together… it made it more fun to buy the healthier foods at the grocery store…  it was more interesting and more enjoyable.”

As Sabina found firsthand, doing things with your children is key to helping them become more active, says Stacy Stolzman, pediatric physical therapist with the NEW Kids™ program. “It doesn’t work for a parent to sit on a couch,” says Stolzman. “Kids do everything by example, so parents need to be the initiators… even doing something active once a week as a family is a great way to start.”

A family walk is a good choice for both young and older kids. “Bring a stroller or a wagon for younger kids and be creative with them - like having a scavenger hunt where everyone’s going to look for a certain color,” suggests Stolzman. Playing soccer, going swimming or simply playing catch or Frisbee is another way to play together as a family.

At home, encourage your kids to spend less time on the couch and more time playing active games. Stolzman suggests a two-hour limit on TV, computer and video game time; the less time your kid spends on these activities, the less likely they are to have a weight problem. When you do watch TV, have kids get up and do jumping jacks or sit-ups or walk up and down stairs during the commercials, which breaks up ‘screen time’.

While it takes time and effort to uproot your little couch potatoes, keep in mind the payoff. Regular exercise will help your children focus better, have more positive self-esteem and more energy, sleep better and be healthier overall - not just now, but as adults as well. That’s a legacy every parent should pass on to their kids.

Teaching healthy habits: what parents can do

Want to encourage your kids to eat healthier and be more active? Your kids will learn from your example, but try these simple tips as well:

• Look for ways to play together as a family. Riding bikes, swimming, hiking, even taking a walk around the neighborhood all encourage your kids to be more active.

• Give your kids a place to be active. Sabina made sure that Nickolas has a ‘workout area’ at home that includes a weight bench, treadmill and an Ab Lounger so he can exercise at home.

• Don’t use food as a reward. If you want to treat your child, suggest a shared activity like going bowling or go to the park together instead.

• Clear your cabinets of junk food, and keep healthy snacks at home. Kids are more likely to eat nutritious foods when they’re easily available.

• Make fast food a rare treat, not an everyday thing - it’s high in fat, calories and salt.

Kelly is a freelance writer, has one husband, two children and one golden retriever.

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