Raising Active Kids

Helping children be fit doesn’t have to cost a lot, but the payoff is huge.

Today’s kids are fatter and less fit than kids used to be. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 17 percent of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 are obese, a figure that has almost tripled since 1980. What’s more, only one in three children achieves the minimum amount of physical activity (60 minutes) needed each day, according to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.

What’s changed? For one thing, the simple suggestion to “go outside and play” now works only for those lucky enough to have both neighborhood friends who are home and adults around to keep an eye out. For another, the proliferation of screen-based entertainments, especially smartphones, now means kids don’t actually have to leave the house—or even the couch—to be social.

Moreover, schools, under pressure to raise standardized test scores, have cut back on recess. And kids’ sports leagues are becoming increasingly competitive, leaving the child of average skills on the sidelines—if he or she makes the team at all. “Unless a child is a top-notch player, he or she won’t see a lot of game time,” says Jim Miastkowski, manager of The Fitness Club at Hackensack University Medical Center. “That can easily lead to discouragement and not wanting to be involved with a team.”

The good news is that all of the bad trends can be countered by parental effort. “Fitness filters down from the family,” says Jennifer Sivitz, M.D., medical director of the Healthy Futures program at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Modeling active behavior and a healthy diet is really important.” That means doing things like walking together, hiking on weekends and being active when you take kids to the playground. If necessary, put this priority into your calendar: Schedule at least 30 minutes three times a week to be active with your kids.

“It’s also about setting ground rules and expectations,” Dr. Sivitz says. “If I’m trying to get dinner together, I tell the kids not to just watch TV while they’re waiting— they can help me, or do Wii Fit [an active play system used with the Nintendo Wii console] for 30 minutes. Even doing a craft is better than sitting on the couch.”

Other ideas for encouraging activity:

  • Find an exercise or sport your child enjoys. “Not everyone needs to be on a team,” Dr. Sivitz says. “Ask your child what kind of exercise he or she likes to do. Dance, gymnastics, tennis, swimming and martial arts are all good options.” Check the local Y or your local recreation program for low-cost classes.
  • Allow kids to walk to and from school, if possible.
  • Put your child in charge of walking the dog.
  • Crank up the music and sing and dance as you clean together.
  • Encourage biking or walking with friends as opposed to texting.
  • Use the time during TV commercials to do quick workouts, such as abdominal or stretching exercises or a series of planks. “As a bonus, if you do this kids won’t be using commercial time to go get a snack,” Miastkowski notes.
  • Check on-demand cable listings for free fitness or yoga classes to watch.
  • Encourage an exercise journal, a technique Miastkowski uses in classes he conducts for kids at The Fitness Club. “Kids respond to being held accountable,” he says. A simple fitness and nutrition log is available for printout at presidential youthfitnessprogram.org.

Experts acknowledge that, given the demands on parents’ time, making family fitness a priority is easier said than done. It may help to know that these activities are among the most important things you can do for your child. The American Heart Association reports that physical activity influences weight, reduces blood pressure, raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol, reduces the risk of diabetes and some kinds of cancer—and leads to greater selfconfidence and higher self-esteem. Happy exercising!

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