As the mother of two young children, I am always seeking out ways to keep my kids busy. We take outings to the library or museum, have at-home art or school sessions, ask them do chores when necessary, take excursions to the park or indoor playgrounds or for a swim in their grandmother’s pool – basically anything to keep their minds and bodies active. Of course we have down time as well, usually when we read together at night or when they watch morning cartoons or a movie after a particularly long play session.
I try to keep all of these activities in balance, but I admit that my focus for them when they’re not in school or doing homework is to make sure they are moving as much as possible. In fact, the sight of my children sitting around for too long in front of the TV will drive me completely mad and before long I’m turning off the tube and planning an impromptu park outing. However, I fear I’m in the minority in my thinking, at least based on some of the children I’ve seen recently.
The sight of overweight and even obese kids has become far too common, as far as I’m concerned. How often I have seen a child out and about in public so overweight and unhealthy that they are actually having trouble walking, much less running around and playing as they should be. But what’s particularly upsetting is how young these kids are. Observing that they already have a significant weight problem at such a tender age tells me it’s just going to be harder for these youngsters to get their weight under control and keep it there as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Why is that? Think about it. The habits we are taught as children are likely the ones we will continue to have as we grow. And I think we all know how difficult it is to not only to break childhood habits but also to cultivate new ones.
But it’s not just anecdotal evidence that confirms what I see around me; statistics are also mounting along with children’s weight. The American Heart Association recently reported that approximately one in three U.S. kids and teenagers is overweight or obese – representing more than triple the rate in 1963. This is astounding and, during the course of my research, I’ve found similar rates in other parts of the world.
So what does this mean? Aside from the obvious discomfort of carrying around extra weight and the social stigma that comes with being overweight, children in this situation are at risk of several serious health problems, including those that don’t usually develop until adulthood, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Does this sound like an ideal childhood to you? I’d wager not and I’d also guess it’s not the one you’d wish for your own children.
So why is this happening to our youngsters? Well, I’m certainly no expert, but I know what I see and what I see is too many children with a diet consisting largely of sugary, processed foods and the seemingly endless supply of snacks. And yes, this includes juice boxes, which are the bane of my existence when it comes to children’s diets. What wrong with water? And don’t even get me started on the number of children I see, even young toddlers, slurping down soda!
As far as physical activity goes, I know many children spend their days immersed in television, video games, iPad games and movies. The worst example of this is when I see kids playing computer tablet games while sitting on a park bench, completely ignoring the swings and slides and other playground equipment which would serve to get them moving and working up a healthy sweat. This is a truly sad sight for me and one I’ve seen far too often.
So what can you do to avoid or reverse this trend if you see it happening in your own home? Here are a few of my best tips.
1. If you can, enrol your child in a sport and stick with it. This is an easy way to ensure at least a couple of hours a week of physical activity.
2. Hide the handheld electronics or movies in your home, only taking them out periodically when your child needs downtime, ideally after he or she has spent time being active. This may sound extreme, but you’d be surprised how quickly your children will find something else to do when these devices are out of sight and out of mind. Try it!
3. Speaking of electronics, if you must buy video games, limit your purchases to ones with sports or dance-oriented themes. These choices demand your kids move in order to play the game, plus they’re fun for the whole family.
4. Get your kids outside as much as you can. Locate nearby parks and make them frequent destinations. Invite your friends to accompany you and enjoy chatting while the kids play. If you have a backyard, purchase a couple of balls or even invest in a water sprinkler for fun at-home activities.
5. Make sure your children have bikes. If this is too expensive, check online for used items or make a trip to your local resale shop. There are many great deals if you take a little time to look.
6. Model active behaviour and involve your children. Make sure your kids see you exercising and, better yet, ask them to join in. There’s nothing so enjoyable as a family bike ride or even a simple walk after dinner. Not only will you spend free quality time with your children, but you’ll be moving along with them!
7. If you have a swimming pool, use it. If you have friends with a swimming pool, request a play date. If neither of these options are available, seek out your area’s public pools or recreation centres with pools. Nothing beats summertime boredom like an afternoon of swimming.
8. Talk to your kids about the importance of movement for keeping their bodies strong and healthy. Explain to them that the more they move the better they will be at sports and other activities they want to be involved in. Avoid talk of being “fat” or “skinny” as these are really not constructive concepts for children to understand. Simply focus on the benefits of movement and why it’s fun. Remember, they’re kids.
9. Finally, take a good hard look at what you’re feeding your children. If unhealthy convenience foods make up the majority of their diets, it’s time for some serious changes and, as hard as it may be, now is the time to do it – while they’re still young. Focus on fruits and nuts as snacks instead of chips and candy bars and that includes granola bars, the majority of which are not that healthy. Replace those juice boxes with water. Seriously, you’re not doing your kids any favours with what only amounts to sugar water and artificial flavouring. If this sounds difficult, remind yourself that the best way to limit these types of foods is to keep them out of the house in the first place and replace them with healthy options that are easily accessible.
10. Once you’ve mastered most of these tips, keep in mind that children need at least one hour a day of vigorous physical activity for optimal health.
Carissa D. Lamkahouan is a writer, journalist, editor and blogger with more than 17 years of experience. She enjoys exercising, reading, spending time with her family, and traveling to Morocco, the homeland of her husband. She has been a Muslim since 2005 and lives in Houston, Texas.