According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 33% of children under the age of 18 are considered obese or overweight, a figure that has increase from just 7% in 1980. The health problems associated with an unhealthy weight that start in childhood will only get worse as adults. However, if parents create healthy habits for their children starting at a young age, those healthy habits will benefit their child well into adulthood.
Childhood and adult obesity rates have been on the increase for several decades now. The technology revolution and easy access to cheap convenience foods have greatly contributed to this. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that, “Childhood obesity is the result of eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity.” It’s as simple as that. More playtime and less junk food really are simple habits that will improve a child’s health today and for a lifetime. But it’s up to the parents to make those choices and changes, no matter the age of the child.
Here’s how parents, caregivers, and teachers can create healthy habits for children.
Let the Kids Get Bored
Despite what your kids may say, boredom can be very healthy for a child, Credit: Flickr: Cayusaboth for their physical health and their imagination. Turn off the TV and video games and ignore the complaints from your children that they are bored. You may find yourself having to dodge begs and pleadings for something to do, but eventually your kids will give up and find something to do.
When a child is bored, they become forced to use their imagination and get creative with what's available to them. Give them the space and freedom to be bored and they will invent stories of pirates and fairies and design buildings and airplanes. Watch while they do this and you'll see that being bored is often a very active activity that can't be done sitting on the couch.
Our parents and grandparents didn’t have 24/7 cartoons and video games to occupy their time. They went outside and climbed trees, made mud pies in the dirt, and followed streams to see where they led. Today kids and parents are more likely to look for the TV remote or video game to keep a child occupied rather than go outside.
In Last Child in the Woods, James Sallis, program director of the Active Living ReseaCredit: Flickr: Christine Myaskovskyrch Program for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, states, “Based on previous studies, we can definitely say that the best predictor of preschool children’s physical activity is simply being outdoors…and that an indoor, sedentary childhood is linked to mental-health problems.”
If you have a backyard, get the kids outside every day, even your young preschoolers and toddlers. Yes, even if it’s raining or snowing! It’s only water and that’s what raincoats and snowshoes are for. Sticks, stones, bugs, puddles, and leaves make the best toys. If you don’t have a backyard, find a nearby park, creek, or field that you can regularly visit with your kids and let them have the freedom to explore the natural world in their own way.
Make Healthy Food Choices
If you don't buy chips, cookies, and soda, then it's harder for your kids to eat such unhealthy choices. Don't buy chips, cookies, or soda to keep in the house. Do keep fruits and veggies in the house that do not require preparation to help make healthy snacks easy. Apples, blueberries, carrot sticks, and strawberries are easy foods for a child to grab for a quick but healthy snack. With every meal serve at least one fruit or vegetable starting with breakfast and ending with dinner.
In so many ways, kids are reflections of their parents. If your child is facing an Credit: Flickr: Chiot's Runobesity problem, then you need to face the fact that you probably are too. The best way for a child to develop healthy habits is for their parents to also have healthy habits. Don't buy the chips, cookies, and soda just to hide them for yourself and think the kids don’t know. Don't put off till tomorrow the start of your exercise plan. Go for a walk with your kids right now. Make healthy choices starting now if you want your child to do the same.
Be Active Every Day
Life with kids is busy and you may not get to the gym or go for a jog every day. You may not have the time every day to let your kids run and play freely in the backyard. But do make it a habit to do something active with your kids every day. Take a walk after dinner, go to the park and walk around the playground while your kids play, have a race to the street corner, or play active video games with your kids. See who can do jumping jacks the longest or do the most in a minute.
Daycare and Preschool
Be conscious of what activities your kids are involved in when you can't be with them. For example, choose a preschool or daycare that has a strong emphasis on daily physical activity. If your child comes home with dirt on their shirt and paint on their pants every day, then you know they spent their day in active play, using their imagination, and developing social skills. If your child comes home from daycare or preschool looking as clean as you sent them with a pile of completed worksheets, then she sCredit: Flickr: Popofatticuspent her day sitting and not playing, creating, or interacting freely with others.
Fear of being ready for school has many parents and preschool teachers valuing worksheets over sand and paint. But painting gives kids writing skills, building blocks teaches math and engineering, and digging in dirt teaches science. Learning through physical activity can have preschoolers better prepared for school than sitting at a desk and help improve grades for school-age children. Spending time in active play with others also teaches valuable social skills. And it instills a healthy habit of staying active while young that becomes hard to break when they get older.
Also choose a daycare or preschool that makes eating healthy meals a priority. If hotdogs and chips are regular menu items, that’s a clear sign that the center does not take your child’s health seriously.
Sign up for a Recreational Sport
If spending every weekend at a soccer, softball, or youth football game are not yours or your child's idea of a good time, that's OK. You don't have to join a competitive league to enjoy a sport. Instead, look for recreational programs designed to introduce children to a sport in a fun non-competitive atmosphere.
Local gymnastics facilities will have recreation programs for all ages and skill level. City parks and recreation departments will offer short weekly sessions for a variety of sports from soccer to swimming to tennis. Another place to check is the local gym. Many offer lessons to kids even if you are not a member. With short sessions, your child can try a sport for 4 to 6 weeks and move on to another or take a break from structured play without breaking a commitment.
It’s important to keep in mind that structure sports alone is not necessarily a healthy habit. According to The Changing Nature of Play: Implications for Pediatric Spinal Cord Injury published in the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine in 2007, “Parents are spending much of their free time carting children from one activity to the next and even pulling them out of one program early so they can make it to the second on time. This type of a structured environment displaces free and creative play where children use fantasy and imagination to rehearse social roles and develop mastery over their environment.” If your child enjoys structured recreational activities, encourage that while keeping it balanced with free unstructured play time.
You don't have to, and shouldn’t, focus on every bite your child eats or even buy a scale to teach your child healthy habits and keep him or her from becoming overweight or obese. The same is true when combating an obesity problem in a child. You will however have to change the habits of the entire family, including yourself. To do this, take a step back in time to before electronics and convenience foods. What did your parents and grandparents do to keep busy when they were kids? Take notes from past generations on activity and combine that with today’s nutrition education. Creating healthy habits for children starts at home and the sooner you start, the more likely it is that your child will have healthy habits for life.