By Dr. Judith Feick, Nemours DuPont Pediatrics, Pike Creek
Take weekly bike rides with your second-grader or go on daily walks with your teen and, chances are, the drive to exercise just might start to kick in. A recent study by researchers at Northwestern University found that kids tend to copy their parents’ unhealthy habits, so your example might have more of an effect than you think.
Although some issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol can be genetic, they are also affected by lifestyle. The study found that children are significantly more likely to be at risk for these health problems and cardiovascular disease if their caregiver has these risk factors as well.
From infancy through adolescence, you can help your child stay active when you:
- Are active yourself– show your youngster the importance of regular exercise by making it a welcome daily routine that
- Limit screen time (TV, computer, video games and cell phones)- none for kids under 2 and no more than 1-2 hours of quality programming and content for tots 2 and up
- Make it fun– Instead of forcing certain activities, figure out what keeps your kid moving and what he or she loves to do
How to Encourage Healthy Habits at All Ages
Infants need help nurturing their budding skills as they grow. You can help by doing the following things:
- Allowing plenty of supervised “tummy time” while awake
- Helping them learn how to roll over by gently guiding them back and forth
- Encouraging them to reach (and later, crawl) by placing enticing toys slightly out of reach
- Teaching action songs, like “Pat-A-Cake,” “This Little Piggy,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel”
- Holding their little hands gently as they learn to walk, while resisting the urge to jump in at times when shaky beginner walkers take a tumble
- Let them learn how to push up, using the palms of their hands, to stand on their own.
- Not keeping your baby in things that restrict their movement too often, like strollers, bouncy seats, swings and car seats.
Toddlers need at least an hour a day of unstructured (free play) activities which include: using push and pull toys, playing with shape sorters and building blocks, pretending to be like Mommy or Daddy (vacuuming, using tools, cooking, etc.), using their imaginations (taking care of dolls, zooming cars, etc.), and drawing with crayons.
In addition, they also need at least half an hour of adult-led physical activity: Listening to music/dancing or jumping, exploring and playing in the backyard or playground together, climbing stairs and using climbing equipment, playing ball, taking a toddler movement or tumbling class together, playing games like “Follow the Leader.”
Preschoolers need some independent play time (about an hour) to choose their own activities, like painting and drawing, playing dress-up, etc. They also require at least an hour of organized play and exercise to help them develop and learn how to master important motor skills through these kinds of activities: Kicking, catching and throwing a ball at home rather than in organized sports (where they might not understand the rules and may lack the attention span, skills and coordination needed), hopping or balancing on one foot, pedaling a tricycle or bike, tumbling, skipping, or freeze dancing, doing obstacle courses, and playing games like “Tag,” “Hide and Seek,” Follow the Leader,” “Duck-Duck-Goose,” and “Simon Says.”
School-age kids need about an hour of physical activity per day, which can include activities like recess play and brisk walking, in addition to higher-intensity activities like running. Letting kids explore a variety of physical activities, games, and sports can help them find one they enjoy best and that they can focus on into adolescence. You can help them transition from small-child play to organized sports by: combining skills such as jumping, throwing, kicking and catching, helping them learn how to cooperate with classmates and teammates for team sports, allowing for unstructured free time when kids can decide what activity they want to do aside from organized sports and activities, and recognizing your child’s skill set and temperament (a shy child might prefer karate or yoga rather than the team aspect required in basketball; an outgoing child would likely be too restless for golf but would end up loving something like soccer or swimming).
Teenagers also need about an hour of physical activity per day, but are often pressed for time to exercise with the demands of school, extracurricular activities and responsibilities at home. You can encourage teens to stay active by: supporting their interests (whether it’s a school sport, group fitness class or dance class), providing transportation to and from their activities (if it’s difficult for teens to get an activity, they might stop going), making sure they have the proper equipment and clothing for the activity (the right shoes or gear may help teens feel more socially comfortable participating in their activities).
The number of kids who are overweight has more than doubled over the past 30 years. From infancy through adolescence, many children are missing out on good old-fashioned physical activity that can help them build strong bones and muscles, maintain a healthy weight, build their self-esteem, and potentially lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
To help kids become active throughout their childhood and beyond, the key is finding things they actually enjoy and feel successful doing. Plus, if your kids see you enjoying and physical activity, they’ll likely feel more empowered to do the same.
Find out more about how to encourage healthy habits in your kids’ lives by searching: “Motivating Kids to be Active” (Kids Health), “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” (President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition), “Shaping your Family’s Habits” (National Institute of Health), and “Tips for Healthy Children and Families” (FamilyDoctor.org).