As a health care provider, there are numerous topics near and dear to my heart but few that provoke true passion and fire in my discussions with parents as childhood obesity. Our society continues to see increasing rates of childhood obesity despite continued focus on the issue. In fact, according to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. This isn’t just a problem on paper. There are numerous immediate and long term effects of obesity, including increased risks of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, prediabetes, and bone and joint conditions.
The reasons for these rising rates are multifactorial and include both dietary and lifestyle changes over the years that have left kids eating more pre-packaged convenience foods and spending much less time engaging in physical play/activity. In fact, according to a prospective, questionnaire-based study presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the “behavioral characteristic that correlated the most with obesity in school-age children was being active less than 1 hour per day.” So perhaps this is where we can start to address the issue and reverse the trends. It’s my recommendation to parents with children with higher BMIs to try not to tackle this issue by making too many big changes at once. We cannot expect a total overhaul of a child’s diet, complete elimination of calorically dense drinks, and imposing a new exercise routine all at once to go over well with any child (or adult for that matter). So what do I suggest? Let’s start with the basics: we have to MOVE our bodies to change our bodies! And I do not mean sitting your child on a stationary bike or treadmill. In order for these changes to be long-lasting, they need to be fun and meaningful to the child. Here is a list of ideas that I provide to the families that I care for and that I have found to be especially useful with my own family.
1. Make it a family affair – In our house, weather permitting, we take a walk after dinner together every night as a family. This is a great time for us all to talk about our day, to disconnect from our phones and social media and TALK to each other. This is so incredibly important not just from an exercise standpoint, but also from the standpoint of strengthening the family unit. When it’s too cold or rainy to walk outside, we turn the radio on and throw a dance party! (This is a HUGE hit in our house as mommy has some pretty “cool” moves!)
2. Change the type of video game – There are few suggestions that I make that come with such opposition from teens as reducing screen time, especially with video games. Kids love video games, so what if we can use this to our advantage and choose ones that require movement? I’m talking Wii systems, Xbox Kinect, or Playstation Move. Or if those more expensive systems aren’t feasible, how about just having the child stand while playing and imitate the movements on the screen?
3. Make rewards activity based instead of food based – Another change we have instituted in our home is to provide a reward system that focuses on a fun activity as the reward instead of candy. For example, our kids get to pick a fun family activity like bowling or going to the park or going to the zoo as their reward for X, Y, or Z.
4. Find a sport or activity for each season – This is so incredibly important and I cannot emphasize the impact this can have on your child’s overall physical well-being. When the child chooses the activity and is engaged and attached to that activity, it is far more likely that they will continue it, excel in the activity, and feel ownership over their accomplishments. Whether it’s dance, gymnastics, baseball, basketball, tennis, etc., these activities not only move the body but also teach important life lessons such as working on a team and overcoming failure and loss.
The goal in all of these suggestions is to start to teach our children the importance of a strong, active body. Not because we need to be a certain weight or size but because when our bodies are fit and strong we have the energy to play, to learn, and to grow into healthy teens and adults!
*** Sara DePierre sees patients at the Pediatric Alliance — Jefferson Hills office. You can read more from Sara on The PediaBlog here.