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By: Chad Fey, M.D.
Itís 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. The school bus has just dropped the kids at the corner and they head home ... to do what? All too often, the answer is an after school snack of chips and soda followed by a couple of hours of TV or video game playing. Studies show that American kids are becoming more sedentary -- sitting more and exercising less. This trend is alarming because habits developed during childhood often follow us throughout life. Lack of exercise can lead to weight gain and even obesity. And an overweight child is more likely to be an overweight adult, with a propensity for the problems associated with being overweight such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Itís also been shown that overweight kids are more likely to experience depression and low self-esteem.
Current guidelines encourage pre-adolescent children to get at least one hour of physical activity each day. While schools do their best to offer physical education classes for students, parents canít rely on that alone to meet their childrenís exercise needs.
Exercising regularly can help kids (as well as adults) maintain a healthy, normal body weight. Itís also known that physical exercise actually strengthens kidsí growing bones.
For all of these reasons, itís even more important than ever for parents to encourage their kids to turn off the TV or computer and get active. One of the best ways to do this is to get involved yourself. Thatís right -- whatís good for the kids is good for the parents. Family activity time -- whether itís swimming at the local pool, playing tennis, riding bike, taking a walk around the block, even gardening -- can be a great way to get everyone in shape.
Just remember to start gradually -- 20 to 30 minutes of activity twice a week is a great place to start. One of the major reasons that exercise programs fail is that people start out at too ambitious a pace. Donít overdo it. Keep it comfortable and fun.
Also keep in mind that kids tire more easily than adults. They also can become dehydrated more quickly, so offer ample opportunities for water breaks. Children tend to have a short attention span (about 20 minutes) when it comes to fitness, so try to make things interesting, fun and diverse. Avoid too much competition -- itís not really what being fit is all about.
Not all exercise has to be a family affair. If you get out a couple of times a week as a family, try to encourage your kids to keep up their activity levels on the off days.
Team sports are one way to give kids the opportunity to exercise with their friends -- soccer, hockey, baseball, volleyball and football are just a few that come to mind. Individual sports work well too. These could include gymnastics, swimming, skiing and cross country running.
Physical activity doesnít always have to be ďorganized.Ē Keep in mind that a game of baseball in the backyard helps to build fitness as well as a Little League game at the park. A neighborhood session of tag can provide a workout equal to that of a soccer game. Encouraging kids to merely ďgo outside and playĒ can help to increase their activity levels because youíll be getting them up off the couch.
There are some pretty simple environmental changes that you can make to help increase your activity levels at home. For instance, encourage the kids to turn on the stereo instead of the TV when they come home from school. If you are watching TV, have the kids (and yourself) get up and get active during commercial breaks. Read the TV guide together in advance and decide which programs you will watch during the week. Set a limit for your family regarding TV time and stick to it. (The same goes for video games and the computer.) If you arenít watching or playing on the screen youíll be more likely to be doing something. Keep meals and TV time separate. Eating in front of the television can become a bad habit, and it decreases communication between family members.
We live in an ever-changing world. A generation ago, most households had a TV set, but no computer or video games. A generation before that, the TV might have been a luxury. And during the generation once more removed, families huddled around the radio at night after theyíd milked the cows and fed the horses. As the world and our lifestyles have changed, our need for regular physical activity has not. Adults commonly recognize the need to add exercise into their lives. Why would it be any different for children?
We can help our kids develop life-long healthy habits by limiting TV and video games and encouraging them to get moving for at least an hour each day.† Exercise can be fun and interesting -- for kids as well as parents. Go on give it a try!
If you have concerns about your childís weight or a sudden gain in weight, talk to your health care provider about ways to increase activity and promote a healthy lifestyle in your home.
Dr. Fey is a family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.