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12 Steps to Having Fit and Healthy Kids

By Steve Edwards
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BabyKids today are the first in history who will live less time than their parents. The primary reason for this is obesity, which is linked to an assortment of ailments. Childhood and teenage obesity rates have been skyrocketing over the past three decades, and the fatter you are, the sicker you are likely to become. According to a study conducted by Weight Watchers International, Inc. and the American Health Foundation, 25 percent of American children are now officially overweight. This is more than double what it was 30 years ago and the numbers have risen with each successive study.

Fast food takes a lot of the blame, but according to Ken Reed, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Physical Education, lack of exercise is the main offender. "Over the last 25 years, caloric intake in toddlers and young kids has gone up three or four percent, but the level of physical activity has dropped nearly 20 percent to 25 percent." Certainly we need to eat better but, more importantly, we need to find a way to get our kids exercising.

Kid doing SportsThe government tells us that kids should exercise 60 minutes a day, but a study published in The Lancet in 2006 suggests that number is too low for optimal heart health. The study states that kids need about 90 minutes of daily exercise to avoid most heart disease risk factors. Given that kids should sleep about 10 hours a night, spend most of their day in school, and, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, spend an average of five and one half hours a day in front of a TV, game, or computer, we don't need a study to show us that we face the challenge of fitting more activity into a day.

Nutrition, of course, is important too. With a Stop and Stuff on just about every corner, the opportunities to consume the wrong types of calories are abundant. Coupled with the fact that most schools offer low-grade foods to their students, we're starting with an uphill battle in this arena as well.

It's not as gloomy as it sounds. Many of these trends can be easily reversed. In fact, with knowledge on what to avoid and by focusing a bit more on your child's physical fitness, you can pretty much assure that your child grows up strong and healthy. Here are 12 steps to ensure that you have healthy kids.

  • Baby with BottleNo bottles before bed. In fact, no bottle at all seems like a better bet as kids that are breastfed are less likely to be obese. A bevy of recent studies, which show infant obesity rates as high as 44 percent in some demographics, have linked a large part of the problem to sending infants to bed with a bottle. Not only is the child getting more calories, it's creating a learned response to eat before bed that is hard to reverse as the child gets older. Infants should have some body fat, but an obese infant is more than twice as likely to grow into an obese adolescent, who is more than twice as likely to become an obese adult.

  • Make your toddler toddle. The 90-minute guideline for exercise is for school-age kids, but it's recommended that younger children get even more. Infants should be encouraged to move as much as possible because it develops motor skills that will help them throughout their life. Toddlers should have at least 30 minutes of planned activity per day and 60 minutes of free play, where they're allowed to move and roam as they like. Preschool-age kids should get at least 60 minutes of planned activity and 60 minutes of free play. With life more hectic than ever, and both parents often working, this may take some planning and creativity but, hey, think of all the time and money you'll save when your kid never has to go to the doctor.

  • Kids taking the BusWalk to school (or at least some of the way). This alone could make one of the biggest differences in activity levels. A generation ago, most self-respecting parents would laugh at their child's suggestion to drive them to school. Nowadays, lines of SUVs stretch out for blocks around campuses filled with kids burning nary a calorie whilst waiting to be dropped on the front step of the school. In some neighborhoods, this lost time is enough to fill most of the child's exercise requirement.

    Lack of busing can shoulder some of the blame but the primary reason is fear. The world has gotten scary, or so we think, and parents drive their kids to keep them safe. In reality, the damage done from lack of activity is putting them at far more risk. According to former Department of Justice statistician Callie Rennison, our fears are mainly based on sensationalism in the media, which seem to promote every child abduction to the top of the headlines. "99.9 percent of child abduction cases are family related," she states. "Statistically, our kids are much safer in public than they've ever been."

    Numbers aside, most parents will likely balk at the idea of making their kids the lab rats in some "walking to school" experiment. But, at least, you can drop them off close to school. The last part of the commute, the part while you're waiting in line, is a place where your kids could be moving in what is probably one of the safest situations imaginable - a line of cars filled with highly-protective parents.


  • Kids at RecessFight for recess. As schools' budgets dwindle because "results" are based on test scores, "optional" classes like recess are being cut. But it can be argued that recess is one of the most important classes your child has. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), it's not just how much children exercise that counts but how long they exercise for that's important. Kids should not exercise for prolonged periods of time. They benefit far more from short bursts of exercise throughout the day. This is the reason that recess periods have been included throughout a typical day of school—those that are now being threatened if they aren't already gone.

    But don't stop at the inclusion of recess either. One study on third graders showed that their recess only included 25 minutes of vigorous activity per week. This, as they might say on ESPN, isn't going to get it done. Inquire about recess as though it were any other course important for your child's scholastic development and demand that it be effective.


  • Orange JuiceJuice: it's not for breakfast anymore. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that many children get most of their calories from beverages, when they'd be better off getting them from fresh fruit and other healthful solid foods. Most of these calories come from soda (more on this below), but juice can fly under the radar, masquerading as a health food. Take a look at the orange juice label. This former icon of a nutritious breakfast, which is still praised in some less-enlightened cultures, is mainly sugar. The refining process has leeched most of its useful ingredients and all of the fiber, turning a perfectly healthful food, an orange, into little more than a morning sugar rush.

  • The cafeteria: just say no. Brown bagging is back. Having your child bring their lunch from home can ensure they're eating well. School cafeterias have been getting progressively worse. Despite the huge successes enjoyed by some that have switched to healthier menus—for example, check out what happened at this school - most feel too restricted by budgets and bottom lines not to farm out their concessions to the lowest bidder.

    Of course, as a parent, you have some say in this. Whether you child goes to public or private school, all are accountable to their community base. Parents have banded together in many communities to change their school's nutritional structure. You can too.


  • Kid Playing Video GameEnforce TV and game limits. You got the part about five and a half hours a day, right? That was an average. We could probably surmise that this time increases in relation to body mass index (BMI). That's a lot of hours of not moving.

    You can make arguments that games, TV, and computers are educational. But even if you monitor your child's content so that it's 100 percent educational (if this is possible), it's important that you enforce time limits for sitting still. Sitting for extended periods is not only bad for you but it instills a habit for, you guessed it, sitting for a long time. These devices are addictive, the same as any food or drug can be. Without foresight and a plan, it's possible for even the best intentioned of us to find ourselves constantly craving our fix in front of a monitor.


  • Tony & the Kids!Make exercise a habit. While we're discussing habitual behavior, exercise is one habit you want to develop in your children. While you're structuring their day add an exercise period. You needn't get scientific and write a periodizational exercise program. In fact, you shouldn't. But by scheduling exercise at a young age they'll get used to the feeling that it's something they should be doing daily.

    Keep in mind that some exercise is inappropriate for a growing body. Weight training is warned against and rightly so in some cases. This doesn't mean that resistance training should be avoided, which can include weights. What you don't want growing bodies to do is a lot of maximal lifting with heavy weights. Exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and a lot of gymnastic-type movements are great. Most home exercise videos are perfectly fine for kids. For young kids, things like Tony & the Kids! or Shaun T's Fit Kid Club may be more fun, but your child is pretty much ready for Turbo Jam® or Power 90® as soon as they feel like trying it. Just don't let your 10-year-old start power lifting with Magnus down at Man's World.


  • Assign chores. Just because we find child labor in the developing world appalling doesn't mean that we're bad parents if we have our kid mow the lawn. Children should learn to do the same work around the house that you have to do for them. Weeding, sweeping, raking leaves, and doing laundry are all calorie-burning activities that add up little by little. Sure, they'll complain, but that's a lot easier to deal with than a case of type II diabetes. Just tell 'em to be happy they don't have to put in a 12-hour shift in a Honduran factory like some kids do.
  • Stop drinking soda. Well, duh. Perhaps you haven't heard this enough but soda accounts for more calories consumed than any other food. Teenagers in America get an estimated 13 percent of their calories from soda, making it nearly impossible to eat a balanced diet. Diet sodas are terrible, too. Want more convincing, start here.

  • Kids playing SoccerTry some sports. Not all kids are good at sports but almost everyone has an aptitude at some physical activity. Start your child young by allowing them to experiment with different sports. The more sports they try, the easier it will be for you to see which ones they excel at and which they don't. A more benign approach to the old East German method of finding athletes at a young age, it's a great parenting tool because it helps you guide them into things they'll do well at. They get exposed to different things, get some exercise, and, in the end, you'll probably find something they'll be good at—or at least decent—which will help their self-esteem as they develop. It's hard for kids to understand why they're bad at something. This tactic can help them, and perhaps you, too, see how the human body is designed and why it's normal to be different. We can't all be the star quarterback but we can all be the star something, which will be a lot easier to achieve if you're aiming for something you have an aptitude for.

    Keep in mind that sports don't just mean team or traditional sports. Martial arts, snowboarding, swimming, dance, and rock climbing are all just as effective as football and soccer for building healthy bodies.


  • Kids OutsideGet outside. When we grow up some of us will be inside people and some will be outside people. As kids, however, we should all get some exposure to the great outdoors. There are an endless number of outdoor activities you can choose from, but the simplest, hiking, is one of the best activities you can do with your kids. It's great exercise, especially if you live around hills or mountains, which will ensure that the intensity will be high. It builds motor skills because you walk on rocks and trees, etc. And it's a learning tool because you'll encounter the natural world and, most likely, develop an interest in the way it works. You don't need to have Yosemite in your back yard to enjoy hiking. Any city park will do, especially for kids who still find wonder in the most basic natural acts.
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