Everyone wants to give a child the healthiest possible start in life. Yet busy lives and demanding schedules make it easy to grab fast food and place kids in front of the TV to keep them quiet. Meanwhile, the percentage of children who are overweight or obese has doubled in the past 10 years, pri marily because children eat too much for the little amount of physical activity they undertake.
Children face several barriers to physical activity and healthy eating. But awareness of these barriers is a key step in addressing them.
Excessive TV viewing—The more a child watches TV, the more likely they are to be overweight. Any more than one hour of television viewing per day will have a negative impact.
Stress—Traumatic events such as abuse, separation or divorce can contribute to overeating and weight gain in children.
Riding in the car—Parents may worry about their child playing or walking to school in an unsafe neighbourhood, so they are driven instead of walking or cycling.
Media influence—Children are vulnerable to the temptations offered by the media. Expensive campaigns target and tempt kids, yet little is spent promoting exercise or healthy foods.
Parents in denial—Parents are unlikely to improve the lifestyle habits of their children unless they identify a problem. However, one study showed that 50 per cent of parents with obese children, and 70 per cent of parents with overweight children saw their children as “normal weight.”1
And more—Additional barriers to a healthy lifestyle include a lack of fitness- oriented classes in school, a lack of recreational facilities (especially in lowincome areas) and busy parents.
Strict diets and fanatical exercise programs will not work for children. Making changes to a child’s lifestyle—and possibly the whole family’s—is a challenge that will require time and effort.
An important strategy to prevent and treat childhood weight problems is to address the three key issues: diet, exercise and role modelling. A parent’s knowledge of nutrition, the foods provided, the example that is set and the attitude toward exercise and healthy eating will have a strong influence over the health of a child.
Healthy nutrition is not only vital for a child’s health but it also assists with growth, learning and development. Children who are poorly nourished are likely to become tired and cranky, making life harder at home and at school.
Parents buy the foods and fill the lunchboxes. The popularity and increased availability of fast foods is a concern but, at the end of the day, there is always the choice not to buy it. The key as a parent is to take control over what a child eats and find a balance between the foods a child should eat most, moderately and least.
The importance of breakfast also shouldn’t be underestimated. Breakfast is associated with improved strength and endurance, a better attitude toward school, improved memory, prevention of hunger and also prevention of subsequent overeating during the day.
The best way for children to learn healthy eating habits is from good examples in the home and at school.
Children learn the most from what they see and do the most.
Regular physical activity is a priority for children. Dietary changes alone are often not enough to help a child lose weight. Taking part in exercise should be encouraged from an early age to promote self-esteem and help children function optimally, both physically and mentally. The enjoyment of sport at an early age, and the influence of parents, friends, teachers, coaches and schools combine to shape lifelong attitudes and participation in sport and exercise.
A vast array of experiences and emotions determine a young person’s willingness to be active. Children have different needs depending on their personality and stage of development. For example, it is recommended that prior to the age of 10, children be encouraged to learn basic skills through small games and group activities without the pressure of competition. An emphasis on enjoyment rather than winning encourages children to participate in a wide variety of sports at school, within the community and with family and friends. It is important young people have a range of options to choose from so there is a better chance of finding something they enjoy that suits them individually. Children who enjoy the rewards of sports participation, such as belonging to a team, achieving goals and learning new skills are more likely to continue playing sport—developing lifelong habits.
Just as physical activity should be encouraged, inactive pastimes should be discouraged. There are some sedentary activities that are popular with children, such as TV, computer games, portable games, the internet, videos/DVDs and mobile-phone messaging. These activities lead to motion deprivation, where people spend hours doing little more than sitting down.
By setting a good example, parents have a unique opportunity to be a positive influence on their children’s eating habits. The home environment has a powerful influence on the health of a child. It won’t help to declare a junkfree zone for your kids while Mum and Dad munch away on chips and lie on the couch. Children are good learners and they learn by what they see.
Parents can make a huge difference by changing the whole family’s approach to diet and by encouraging family members to be more active. This benefits everyone and doesn’t single out the child who is overweight.
Choose healthy foods and active pursuits for yourself. Children will see they can follow your habits, and emulate their parent’s desire to be healthy and active. They will also see that healthy behaviour is important for adults, and develop a positive attitude toward health and fitness for the rest of their lives. The more gradual the changes you make, and the more support available from family and friends, the more likely you are to succeed. When you do start to make changes, make sure you are well informed. There is the child’s growth and development to consider, and lessons about food and exercise that could last a lifetime.
1. Paediatric Academic Society, May 2001.