America’s children are gaining weight at an alarming rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly nine million kids ages 6 to 19 are overweight. That’s about three times as many as in 1980. Worse, the CDC predicts that unless this trend is reversed, one out of three American children born in 2000 could develop diabetes, which (along with other obesity-related health problems) could shorten life expectancy. Unbelievably, children in the 21st century may not live as long as their parents!
Today the obstacles to a healthy childhood have grown beyond the occasional aversion to spinach or gym class: They include the explosion of fast food outlets, the marketing of super-sized foods to kids, and less physical education and recess at schools. The couch-potato lure of hundreds of TV channels, computer games, and Internet attractions also looms large. And while parents may sense that their child could be healthier, it isn’t always easy to distinguish a little baby fat from a serious weight problem. (For more information, see the Childhood Obesity section of www.obesity.org.)
That’s why, now more than ever, parents need to help children avoid the pitfalls that could lead to serious health problems in the future.
A good place to start, whether your child is 6 or 12, is at the family dinner table. Kids are as hungry for their parents' attention as they are for food, and a family meal a few times a week provides an opportunity for catching up and for parents to role model good eating behavior, says William Cochran, M.D., a pediatric nutrition and weight expert at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa. “The parent can help the child decide what to eat and encourage him or her to eat appropriate amounts of food," he says.
Older children who think they’re too cool or too busy with homework or jobs to eat right are a special challenge, says pediatric specialist Mary L. Gavin, M.D., co-author of Fit Kids and medical editor at kidshealth.org. But the pertentage of overweight adolescents has increased dramatically in recent years and they, too, need nutritional guidance. “Get them involved in menu planning, shopping, and food preparation,"Gavin suggests. Let your kid choose an occasional drive-through run so that fast food doesn’t become an illicit treat.
Work it Out
Exercise should be as routine as family meals, says personal trainer Thomas Yannitte, author of Owner’s Manual: Fitness for Parents, Kids and Everyday People. Make active tasks like walking the dog part of a child’s responsibilities, he says. Clip on a pedometer if it makes it more fun. Plan a family outing every weekend, whether it’s a hike in the mountains or around the mall.
How much exercise is enough? Children should accumulate at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, says Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. “Several hours is even better. The idea is for kids to learn the skills for a lifetime of fitness."That also means turning off the television and computer. Use tech time as a reward and let older children help set up schedules (for example, allot a certain number of hours per week for their favorite programs).
“When a family plays together instead of staring at the TV, they get fitter and build closer relationships at the same time,"says Ellen Shanley, R.D., co-author of Overcoming Childhood Obesity.
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