This might be the first generation of children who do not outlive their parents, says Amy Bohn, M.D., a family physician for the University of Michigan Health System. The reason? Health problems related to childhood overweight and obesity.
"The number of overweight or obese children in the U.S. has tripled since the 1960s to approximately 15 percent, and up to 70 or 80 percent of these children will continue to be obese as adults," says Bohn, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the U-M Medical School.
"As a result, children are starting to develop what we've always thought of as being more adult illnesses - type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol and asthma."
Fortunately, parents can take action now to help prevent the early onset of these diseases. And, Bohn says, summer is an excellent time to make some healthy lifestyle changes that will benefit kids and the entire family.
Now that the warm weather has arrived, Bohn offers these tips to ensure that your kids have a slimmer summer.
7 ways to keep your kids trim this summer
- Limit "screen time." "There is a positive correlation between the amount of time that children spend in front of the TV, computer, or video games and obesity, so it's important to limit those types of activities to less than two hours a day," advises Bohn. By reducing time spent on sedentary activities, parents free up more time for their children to play outside and be active.
- Make activities fun. Exercise shouldn't be a chore, especially for children. With warm weather outside, kids cans do a variety of activities that involve both fun and fitness. "Parents should involve children in playful activities, as opposed to just doing things like puzzles and games," says Bohn. She recommends jumping rope, swimming, skateboarding, and bike riding as alternatives to inside play. Team sports also are great ways to promote activity, so encourage your child to join a community team such as softball, soccer or dance. Summer is a great time to get in shape for fall tryouts at school, too.
- Involve the whole family. Take turns choosing fun things to do as a group, such as going on a family bike ride, visiting a zoo, or even planting a garden. Kids are more likely to want to exercise and to enjoy if they are doing it alongside mom and dad. In addition, focusing on the family as a group helps prevent overweight children from feeling embarrassed or singled out. "As a parent, you don't want to be critical of your child because of the concerns we see with childhood obesity and lower self-esteem," says Bohn. "It's important to discuss it in the framework of the whole family being healthy and active."
- Stock up on healthy snacks. What you have in your kitchen influences the food choices your children make, both now and later in life. Avoid buying high-fat, salty or sugary snacks like chips and cookies. Instead, try fruits and vegetables such as apples, bananas and carrots, which are fun to munch on and portable. Other good snacks include yogurt, peanut butter and celery, and whole-grain crackers and cheese. Sugary soda pop and fruit-flavored drinks are big contributors to obesity, so provide healthier options like bottled water or milk. "You can even involve your children in the grocery shopping," says Bohn. Allowing your children to choose healthy snacks that they enjoy increases the likelihood that they will eat those snacks instead of less healthy alternatives.
- Make plans. Children are often left unsupervised in the summer, which makes it harder to motivate them to be active and eat properly. Bohn recommends making set plans and scheduling in some fun activities. "Talk to your children before the day, as far as things that you can plan together, and then talk to them at the end of the day when you get home, as far as what they've done that day. It takes time and planning, but if you have some structure, it really helps," she says.
- Model good behavior. Children are more likely to make healthy choices when their parents set a good example. Show them that you enjoy eating healthy food, and they will be more willing to give it a chance. Encourage young children to bike alongside you as you jog, and invite older ones outside to play catch. Even small things, like walking to the corner store instead of driving, can encourage kids to get moving. The more active and healthy you are as a parent, the more active and healthy your child will want to be. "Parents being good role models can help foster good habits in their children, which really helps the problem of childhood obesity," says Bohn.
- Keep it up! "The habits that we develop over the summertime will persist into the fall and winter months, particularly if there's continuity," says Bohn. "If parents help their children to establish these healthy routines, then they most likely will continue in the future." Making health a priority is easy in the summer, and if parents continue to make it a priority in the fall and winter, children will develop healthy habits for life.
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