Did you know nearly one-third of American children are currently obese or overweight? These kids are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, or even certain cancers as they grow up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But these risks are totally avoidable with a healthy lifestyle and diet, the CDC adds.
I’m sure you’ve heard these facts before, since Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s campaign to raise healthier children, and the great school lunch debate, have been making headlines for years. But do you know who’s to blame for these rising childhood obesity rates? According to the UK government, it’s parents.
Should arrests be made in the United States as well? We want to know, Do you think U.S. parents should be charged with child neglect or cruelty for having overweight children? Take our poll, and then share a comment below — it could appear in a future issue of Parents.
If your morning routine is anything like my family’s, it’s all you can manage to get everyone dressed, fed, and ready on time (we won’t even mention the endless fights over bathroom time). So the idea of fitting in exercise before school seems a bit farfetched.
But it’s actually a lot easier than it sounds—at least for your kids—thanks to BOKS (Build Our Kids’ Success). This before-school fitness program, started five years ago by Massachusetts mom Kathleen Tullie, is now offered at 1,075 elementary and middle schools. And yours could be next.
The beauty of the program (and a primary appeal to administrators) is that BOKS is free. It’s run by parents, teachers, phys. ed. instructors—anyone who believes in the cause of helping kids get more activity. The nonprofit provides training tips and suggested weekly curriculums, which include a warm up, running-related activities (including relay races and obstacle courses), a skill of the week (whether it’s sit-ups, jump rope, or jumping jacks), games, and a cool down/nutrition talk. It’s designed to last 45 minutes and to be held two to three mornings a week, though it can be tailored to meet an individual school’s time and space limitations.
One hardly needs to make a case for why kids need more exercise. There’s a reason why September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 18 percent of children are obese, and that may be undercounting by 25 percent. The number has grown by a startling 500 percent since 1974. While eating habits are a large part of the problem, so is an overall lack of activity. Kids aren’t getting close to the recommended hour per day of exercise, and they’re getting less exercise at school than ever. Third graders average just 69 minutes per week of gym class. And recess has largely become a thing of the past, robbing kids of yet another opportunity to get moving.
But the issue isn’t just about their waistlines. It’s also about their brains. Regular physical activity is associated with higher academic achievement. Kids who are physically fit outperform those who aren’t on reading and math tests. And exercising right before school seems to activate their brain and enhance their ability to focus, a clear win-win.
If this sounds like something your school (and your kids) could use, get moving—and fast. Through October 15, Reebok and the Reebok Foundation are awarding $1,000 grants to up to 300 schools to help implement the program. The funds can be used toward T-shirts, equipment, trainer stipends, and more. Find out more here, and then have your school’s administrator or PTA head enroll here. It might mean a little more rushing than usual in the morning, but your kids’ bodies and brains will thank you.
Obesity affects at least 18 percent of all children in the United States—triple the rate of a generation ago. While much of the focus has been on the poor dietary habits of our kids, the truth is that exercise (or lack thereof) is just as big a factor. Most kids don’t come close to the 60-minutes-a-day ideal for exercise, and schools aren’t helping much. As we reported, third graders average just 69 minutes per week of gym class, a fraction of the 150 recommended for that age group. Factor in the absence of recess in our testing-crazed academic environment, the increased time demands of homework, and children’s obsession (like ours) with all things electronic, and it’s little wonder they’re falling short—and getting bigger.
So as we embark on National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, it’s nice to know that some organizations are taking an active approach to the problem. On Monday, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) held a youth tennis exhibition prior to that day’s action at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York. The purpose was to highlight the organization’s youth tennis initiative, 10 and Under Tennis, which shortens the court and lessens the bounce (via softer, spongier balls) for kids starting with the game.
The USTA has installed more than 13,000 youth-sized courts around the country and now holds all officially sanctioned tournaments for kids under 10 on them. It’s an investment in the future of the game that helped boost youth participation by 12 percent last year—and, more important, has made a difficult, highly skilled game easier for kids to feel successful.
The demonstration featured former boxing champ, health expert, and mom Laila Ali (pictured above, with a group of budding players). Ali, who dabbled in tennis as a kid before following in the pugilistic footsteps of her legendary father, Muhammad Ali, has rekindled her love for the game and plans to build a youth-sized court in her driveway for her kids, who are 6 and 3.
The exhibition also kicked off more than 1,000 free “play tennis” events for kids and families being held throughout the country this month. You can find one in your area here. I highly recommend giving it a try—your child is far more likely to play if you do.
The USTA is also a presenting sponsor of Nickelodeon’s 11th annual Worldwide Day of Play, which takes place in San Diego, Detroit, and a third city to be named (it’s being chosen via an online contest). It will feature a host of sports and activities—from football to dancing to double dutch. Perhaps most significantly, the station will suspend programming from 12pm to 3pm (that’s right—no SpongeBob for three whole hours!) in order to encourage kids to go outside and get active. It’s a fun event and a great cause, so don’t just read about it. Grab a racquet, a basketball, or your sports gear of choice, and go do something active with your kids. Their healthy future depends on it.
Even the researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were shocked: The number of children ages 2 to 5 who are obese has decreased by 43 percent, according to the latest large government study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In 2004, 14 percent of preschoolers had a weight problem, and the rate was only 8 percent in 2012. Experts believe that the drop may be related to the fact that more moms are breastfeeding (which helps babies learn to listen to their own hunger and fullness cues) and young kids are not drinking as many sugary beverages.
This is particularly great news because preventing a weight problem is obviously much easier than dealing with one. Children who are overweight or obese at age 3 to 5 are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults. It is certainly possible to help older kids slim down or at least slow their weight gain—especially when the whole family gets on board. But for parents of young children, the key is get into good habits and stick with them. You’ve heard plenty about the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables and being active, but also keep these three tips in mind:
Pour water. Make it the primary thirst-quencher in your family, rather than juice or soda. Of course, milk is important too. But avoid letting your toddler tote around a bottle or sippy cup filled with anything.
Just go outside. We are all struggling with the lure of screens. When kids get fresh air, they are naturally energized and eager to move around more. Even when it’s cold.
Don’t use food as a mood-booster. I have been guilty of doing this with my own kids. However, if children learn to seek out chocolate or cookies or pretzels when they’re hurt or frustrated, they may do it throughout their life. Instead of offering a snack to distract your child, offer to play catch or join in the pretend-play game of her choice.
A new study released this week by The New England Journal of Medicine, which tracked children’s weight fluctuations over time, found that a child’s weight in kindergarten was a strong predictor of his or her weight by eighth grade.
Of the 7,738 children studied, roughly three-quarters of those who become obese between the ages of 5 and 14 had been above the 70th percentile for body-mass index when entering kindergarten. With each passing year, the chances that a child would break away from their current weight trajectory decreased—meaning children whose weight was in a normal range stayed that way, while those who were heavy remained so. These findings suggest that a parent’s efforts in his or her child’s early years to encourage healthy food choices and instill a fitness-focused mentality can help set a child up for a lifetime of successful weight management.
But will harping on “eating right” and “staying active” at such a young age backfire and make future generations even more body image-obsessed than they currently are? Studies show that even young children are aware of body image and feel tremendous pressure to live up to images portrayed by the media. This creates a challenge for parents to strike a balance between advocating for good health and encouraging a positive self-image, despite outside appearances. To downplay body image concerns while still inspiring a healthy lifestyle, try the following:
Emphasize nutrition rather than weight.
Describe food as energy for the body.
Encourage the formation of exercise habits now, which research shows are likely to continue into adulthood.
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Image: Mother and daughter eating fresh vegetables via Shutterstock.