Fit children look to parents as role models
By Samantha Critchell
They also urge their kids to eat all that's on their plates, read books and allow their artistic sides to flourish.
All this is important, but so is physical activity and learning about healthful eating habits, experts say.
Unfortunately, many parents don't think about diet and exercise for kids until weight is already a problem.
"When kids become overweight 'all of a sudden,' parents don't understand how it happened," says Melinda Sothern, a clinical exercise physiologist and director of the Pediatric Clinical Research Section at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. She is co-author of "Trim Kids" (HarperCollins) with T. Kristian von Almen, a research psychologist and assistant clinical professor in pediatrics at LSU Health Services Center, and Heidi Schumacher, the chief clinical dietitian at Children's Hospital in New Orleans.
What parents don't realize is that "all of a sudden" was probably years in the making.
Until children turn 6 years old, their actual weight doesn't matter, but from 18 months on, they are forming the behaviors and routines that will stick with them, often for life, Sothern says.
A big turning point is when they enter kindergarten, when parents no longer control lunchtime and snacks, and when kids don't spend most of their day playing in the back yard.
"At school, kids are sedentary. At home, they're sedentary, watching TV or playing on the computer. The logical outcome is overweight kids," Sothern says.
The next critical phase is puberty, especially for girls. Not only is puberty a time when fat naturally accumulates on the body, but girls start spending their afternoons and evenings gabbing on the phone, Sothern observes.
She adds: "It's not the parents' fault. It's a societal problem that (they) don't have enough opportunities to be active and, as a sign of our success, there's an overabundance of food."
The burden, however, is on parents to find the solution.
"As a parent, you have to be a role model and lead a healthy lifestyle," says Mike Brungardt, the strength and conditioning coach for the professional basketball San Antonio Spurs.
Brungardt co-produced a children's workout video with his brothers Kurt, the author of health and workout books, and Brett, the strength and conditioning coach for the Dallas Mavericks. "Action Sports Camp" features former NBA All-Star Sean Elliott and is endorsed by the American Heart Association.
To get children moving, especially when they say they're tired after a day at school, is to make moving fun, says Kurt Brungardt.
"Have a dialogue about what your kids like and like to do," he advises.
Physical activity doesn't have to mean playing sports, adds Mike Brungardt. And change the routine often, he adds, because varying the activities will help keep someone interested.
"Any exercise 'routine' gets old; it becomes stale," says Mike Brungardt, and there also are physiological benefits in having a variety of activities and new challenges.
Hiking, biking, climbing trees in the backyard or playing tag with friends all accomplish the same goal as basketball: exercise.
Some kids simply are less interested in physical fitness, and their parents owe it to them to find these activities, Sothern adds. The children may be putting on weight while not even overeating, she explains, but if they're not burning the calories that go into their mouths, it's as if they are overeating.
Either poor nutrition, a lack of activity or a behavior issue is driving a child toward an unhealthy weight, she says, "and one literally feeds the other."
Sothern has worked with more than 2,000 kids, and she says among the lessons she has learned in helping children achieve a healthier weight are never to impose adult exercise rules and not to restrict foods, making them a forbidden fruit.
If children are encouraged to enjoy physical play, not forced to spend time on a Stairmaster, they will feel the euphoria that accompanies the rush of moving around and that hooks them into other activities, Sothern says.
As for food, she suggests parents redirect their children toward healthy foods and eating habits.
Her advice: Tell young children that eating vegetables will help them grow; tell teenagers that drinking a lot of water will help keep their skin clear; and don't leave serving platters on the table, which invites everyone to eat seconds.
Also, always eat meals and even snacks at the table, which will limit opportunities to graze, and stay away from anything "super size," which is too big for anyone.
"The best motivation for parents to get healthy is that they want healthy kids," Kurt Brungardt says.
Exercise, diet best ways to watch weight
Helping children achieve a healthy weight is a three-prong effort, according to Melinda Sothern, co-author of "Trim Kids" (HarperCollins). It encompasses exercise, a healthy diet and the right eating behaviors. Some tips:
- Ask your children to walk briskly whenever and wherever they walk.
- Create an environment for active play both inside and outside the home.
- Provide opportunities for normal-weight children to safely climb, run and jump to help develop muscle strength and bone density. Consult a physician about which activities are safe for an overweight child.
- Reserve at least one day each weekend dedicated to fun family fitness activities.
- Require that when they watch television, they have to do some kind of exercise or movement during commercials.
- Offer choices while getting some help around the house. Options might include vacuuming or walking the dog; raking the leaves or going for a bike ride.
Helpful eating behaviors
"Trim Kids" also offers these rules for eating and for altering eating behaviors:
- Take smaller bites and chew more, 15 to 30 times per bite.
- Do not take seconds except for vegetables.
- Leave some of every type of food on your plate.
- Leave the serving bowls of food in the kitchen.
- Use a smaller plate.
- Eat at least three bites of every food. (This gets reluctant diners to try new flavors.)
- Drink a large glass of water 15 minutes before each meal.
- Eat in one place and on a schedule.
- Don't do anything else while eating.