By Brenda Guiterrez, McClatchy Newspapers
With more than 108 million adults, or 61 percent of the adult U.S. population, either obese or overweight, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it’s no wonder our children are headed toward unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles.
By setting good examples early on and establishing habits of healthy eating and physical fitness, parents can give their children the gift of health to carry them through adulthood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 percent of American adults do not get enough physical activity to provide health benefits, and 25 percent of adults are not active at all in their leisure time.
Obese children can have serious health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and respiratory complications, and often carry these conditions into adulthood, according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
The social and emotional fallout of being overweight also cause low self-esteem, behavior and learning problems, and depression.
But for young kids, it shouldn’t be about diet and exercise. It should be about being healthy and having fun.
“The No. 1 role model is the parent. The kid does what the parent does,” said Stacy Beeson, a registered and licensed dietitian who is St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center outpatient dietitian and corporate wellness specialist. “Parents need to control the home environment. Buy fresh foods instead of opening a bag of something.
“It’s sad to see meals and exercise squeezed out of our lives,” Beeson added. “Research behind the family meal has shown kids get more nutrient-dense foods, and less chance kids will take up drugs or alcohol.” Beeson offers these tips for parents: Set a schedule for meals and snacks to discourage all-day grazing.
Eat at the table, as a family. Use the time to share news and tell stories.
Don’t eat in front of the television or computer. This leads to fast — and mindless — eating. Limit overall screen time throughout the day.
A treat a day is OK. By offering a dessert every day, it takes away the “specialness” and reduces the instinct to overindulge.
Don’t give up on fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s up to the parents to keep offering healthy foods, even if the child initially snubs them. It can take up to 20 offerings for a child to come around.
Don’t be a short-order cook. Catering to a picky eater will only enforce the habit, and won’t allow the child to learn and explore.
Make meal time pleasant and relaxed. Do away with the “clean your plate” rule.
Always add something fresh. Even if you’re pressed for time and have to whip up a frozen pizza, add fresh toppings like chopped tomatoes or fresh spinach.
Bring the kids into the kitchen. Let them help with selecting the menu and preparing the meal. Take them to the grocery store and let them pick out their favorite fresh fruits and vegetables.
Set limits. Children have a natural ability to self-regulate when it comes to eating habits. It’s up to the parents to offer a variety of fresh, healthy, colorful foods.
Get the whole family involved. Healthy eating doesn’t work if it’s just focused on the children. Create a healthy kitchen.
If you’re trying to undo unhealthy habits, start slow. Introduce a healthy, and possibly unfamiliar, food along with something familiar. And never focus on a child’s weight.
Experts agree, the biggest deterrent to physical activity is screen time. Limit the number of hours your child watches TV or plays on the computer, and get moving.
Infants and toddlers may not be ready to take up tennis or spike a volleyball, but there are plenty of options in the Treasure Valley that cater to the physical fitness of our youngest residents.
Take The Little Gym in Eagle. Founded in 1976 by Robin Wes, The Little Gym has expanded to more than 300 franchises in 19 countries, all with the same mission: “Motor skill development made fun builds confidence that leads to a lifetime of success.” Pat and Lisa Kelly opened two locations in the Treasure Valley after seeing what a difference The Little Gym made in their own daughter.
“We took our daughter to The Little Gym when we were living in Washington, D.C., and the biggest change we saw in her was self-confidence,” Pat Kelly said.
“We want the kids when they come here to love what they’re doing, in addition to learning.” Children 4 months to 3 years and their parents can enroll in classes at The Little Gym. After 3, kids start taking classes by themselves in non-competitive gymnastics, dance, karate, cheerleading and sports skills through age 12.
“The kids don’t even realize they’re creating habits at a young age,” Kelly said. “We do things like Vegetable Week to teach healthy eating habits to keep your body healthy.” If your children would rather exercise in the comfort of your home, a yoga program designed just for kids can help get kids off the couch.
Former Boise yoga instructor Jeanette Runnings has been a pediatric occupational therapist for more 20 years.
While attending the Karma Kids teacher certification program in June 2005, she was inspired to create and develop the Yoga-Yingo game series to introduce children, primarily ages 2 to 6 years old, to the benefits of yoga in a fun and educational game format.
“Kids have a short attention span, so we’re not going to hold a pose as long. We go through the poses pretty quickly,” Runnings said.
“Yoga is connecting body, mind and spirit,” Runnings added. “You get some balance and some focus in. Kids can explore their bodies.
“I let the kids know everyone is different, and to learn to appreciate your differences, to appreciate the changes in their bodies.”
Can’t afford to join a gym or take a class? Rather stick close to home, or stay indoors? Emphasize activity, not exercise, especially among younger children. Your child’s activity doesn’t have to be a structured exercise program or competitive sport. Free-play activities, such as playing hide-and-seek, tag or jump-rope, also burn calories and improve fitness.
There are plenty of ways to incorporate physical fitness into your daily routine for free.
Go for a bike ride or take a walk around the neighborhood after dinner.
Celebrate a birthday, holiday or other special day with a physical activity — a hike in the Foothills or a snowball fight in the backyard — instead of a calorie-laden meal.
Rally the families in your neighborhood for a game of touch football or tag at the local park.
If it’s too cold outside, turn off the TV, crank up the stereo and dance around the living room with your kids.
If you want an active child, set a positive example by being active yourself. Find fun activities that the whole family can do together. Exercise should never be a punishment or a chore.
Mix it up. Let each child take a turn choosing the activity of the day or week.