You want your kids to be healthy and happy. What parent doesn't? But with America's childhood obesity epidemic growing worse every year—and with fast food meals and sedentary TV-and-computer pastimes the societal norm—you worry about their future. In a world set up to make kids fat, how can you make sure yours aren't?
The solution is simple, says Tom Gilliam, Ph.D. Don't preach to your kids from the "parent pulpit" and impose a bunch of arbitrary diet and exercise rules. Instead, live a healthy body weight message, every day, and your kids will naturally come along for the ride.
"A lifetime of fitness always begins at home," asserts Gilliam, creator of the Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.® workplace program that helps employees achieve and maintain healthy body weights. "Research shows over and over that the only way to combat childhood obesity is to make nutrition and exercise family priorities. In fact, more and more companies are teaching the 'family fitness' principle to their employees. It's a huge trend right now."
Why are so many companies concerned about the body weight of their employees' children? Quite frankly, it's because obese kids are expensive to insure. Just as insurance companies realize that obese policyholders cost them a lot of money, employers realize that obese employees adversely affect their bottom line. And both parties – insurance companies and employers – quickly have come to see that obese family members are expensive, too. And when you consider the New England Journal of Medicine's claim that one in three kids is now overweight or obese, you can see the reason why the "get kids and families healthy together" trend is gathering momentum.
"Obese kids are more likely to get sick or injured," says Gilliam, whose program includes such components as healthy lifestyle curricula for the classroom and children's books featuring cartoon characters that extol the benefits of munching fresh veggies and exercising. "They're more likely to suffer from emotional problems. When they're sick at home, a parent has to be out of work, so company productivity suffers. And obese kids grow up to be obese adults – and that doesn't bode well for future employers, taxpayers, or society in general."
Of course, financial reasons aside, you want your kids to be healthy because you love them! And – sorry, couch potatoes and junk food lovers! – that means you, the parents, may have to change your ways as well! Gilliam offers a whole slew of fun and simple suggestions for making fitness a family affair:
1. Teach kids that good health is their responsibility. Explain that their body weight is connected to their overall health, and that their health is the most precious asset they'll ever possess. Tell them that the habits they learn now will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of good health. It is their responsibility and no one else's. "Tell your children that you won't always be there to police what they eat and whether they exercise," says Gilliam. "When they get into the right kind of habits today, they'll remember them tomorrow."
2. Talk to kids about what it really means to be healthy. "Many kids, especially girls, who tend to be more body conscious, may assume that 'healthy' is synonymous with 'skinny,'" says Gilliam. "In fact, many adults believe this! Explain to kids that achieving a healthy body weight is about feeling good, not looking good. Talk about how they will feel better if they are healthy and be able to take part in sports and other fun activities."
3. Show them what good long-term health looks like. Admittedly, it is tough for kids to see beyond the next day, much less 50 years down the road. But you can use people you know as "object lessons" to drive your point home.
"If one grandmother is vibrant and youthful and travels a lot, and the other is overweight and housebound, point this out to your kids, assuming of course they're mature enough to understand and handle it," says Gilliam. "Explain that when they get older you hope they'll be more like the first grandmother. Impress upon them that a lifetime of good health means making the right decisions now—and let them know that, ultimately, they are responsible for doing so."
4. Use hard numbers to measure body weight. For instance, teach older kids what their "BMI" means. Kids don't respond well to vague terminology like "healthy" or "fit" (or worse, "skinny"). They like concepts that are straightforward and easy to grasp. For kids 10 and older, you might use Body Mass Index (BMI) as your measuring stick for fitness. (Gilliam explains that for kids under 10, experts typically use height-weight data to determine obesity; if a child is between the 85th and 95th percentile, he is considered overweight, and if he's in the 95th percentile or higher, he's considered obese.)
Explain to your older child that his Body Mass Index (BMI) – multiply his body weight (in pounds) by 705; then divide by the square of his height (in inches) – reveals whether he's overweight or in the normal range. A BMI of 18.5 to 25 is optimal. If your child is overweight, help him work toward his "magic number" of 25. If he's already within the normal range, explain that it's important to stay at 19 (or 20 or 21 or whatever).
5. Educate older kids on how to read food labels. You may need a crash course yourself, first, and that's okay. Gilliam's book, Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.: The Simple Truth About Achieving & Maintaining a Healthy Body Weight (Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy., LLC, 2008), is a good starting point.
"When kids learn to read food labels, they'll be able to see that sodas, for instance, are prohibitively high in sugar," he says. "And they'll learn that the bottle that looks like one serving is actually 2.5 servings—so they're getting more than twice the sugar than they may think at first glance!"
6. Chart their progress. It's always helpful for kids to see, in black & white terms, what they've achieved. While you're teaching kids about good nutritional choices, for instance, have them write down how many calories they took in each day. Also, get a calendar and have them record their fitness activities for the day: "Walked the dog for 30 minutes" and "Went hiking with Girl Scout troop."
Finally, don't hesitate to use the age-old bribery technique in conjunction with the calendar. If your child meets your predetermined goal – say, 45 minutes five days a week for a month – she gets the new outfit she's been wanting, a trip to the local water park, or tickets to the Hannah Montana concert she's dying to attend. "Yes, you want your children to view fitness as its own reward, but sometimes they need a little extra push," says Gilliam. "Don't worry. You're getting them into the habit of exercise and that's what's important."
7. Find fun activities you can do as a group. However much you may wish your kids would do daily calisthenics while you supervise and sip a cool drink (kidding!), parents need to be part of the action too! Take regular hikes in the woods. Go inline skating at the park. On a sunny day, create a crazy obstacle course using jump ropes, pogo sticks, large bouncy balls, and maybe even a slip-n-slide. When it rains, stick in a yoga tape and have fun bending and stretching as a family.
"Yes, you want to show your kids that fitness is fun, but you also want to show them that it's 'normal,'" says Gilliam. "Think about it: If you sit in front of the TV every day after work, that will come to seem like the normal way to spend time. We learn what we live."
8. Model good eating habits for your kids. When they see you reach for an orange when you're hungry instead of a bag of chips, they'll go for the good stuff too. But don't rely on pure willpower. If there is junk food in the house, someone under your roof (regardless of age) will devour it! Once those cookies or chips are in the cupboard, it's too late. Help kids avoid temptation by bringing home only healthful and delicious snack foods like yogurt, fresh fruit, raisins, and natural peanut butter.
9. Make a game out of shopping for and serving healthful foods. It's easy to get stuck in a rut with the same old expected "good-for-you foods" like corn, green beans, or apples. Gilliam suggests having some fun with the shopping/cooking process as a way to alleviate boredom for you and your kids.
"Maybe you can introduce an unusual fruit or vegetable every week—star fruit or guava or artichokes," he says. "Both you and your kids will enjoy trying out new flavors. Or designate a week as 'Red Foods Week' and let your kids select every healthful red food they can think of: tomatoes, strawberries, beets, apples, watermelon, and so on. Then, work a red food into every meal."
10. Pair your child with a buddy for exercise. If your daughter's friend is into horseback riding or ballet, encourage your daughter to get involved, too. If the kid next door swims at the local YMCA, get your son a membership too and suggest that they carpool. Here's one area where peer pressure can be positive!
11. Challenge kids to help you find ways to "sneak in" exercise. For example, too many of us obsessively look for the closest parking spot to our destination. Reverse this trend! Ask kids to help you find the space that's farthest away from the grocery store or mall.
"Make a 'no escalators' rule and ask kids to help enforce it," suggests Gilliam. "By always seeking out stairs when you're at the mall, you teach kids to build exercise into their day."
12. Connect exercise with activities kids already like to do. For example, if your kids love video games, the Wii can be a great form of exercise. If they're interested in science, take them on weekly nature walks where they can identify trees, plants, and bugs to their heart's content. But what if all they want to do is watch TV? Fine, says Gilliam—just tell them they can watch their favorite show only if they exercise while it's on. They might walk on the treadmill, walk or run in place, stretch, or lift hand weights.
13. Use books, videos, and other stories to help drive the point home. If you have a teenage daughter who loves to read, give her a subscription to a fitness magazine. Give your 10-year-old son a martial arts video aimed at kids. (There are tons of kid-friendly fitness videos on the market!) And Gilliam's own series of brightly illustrated children's books, featuring cartoon character Heart "E" Heart and friends, is a huge hit among the younger set (toddler up to age 8).
14. Let your child wear a pedometer every day. Kids who love gadgets (and isn't that all kids?) will enjoy measuring their steps. Remind them that 10,000 is the number of steps to aim for each day. Rather than seeming like a dreaded chore, that daily walk will become a fun challenge!
15. Consider exercising in the morning. "If you try to squeeze fitness activities in during the evenings, they'll rarely happen," says Gilliam. "Between homework, afterschool events, dinner, and chores, you'll just run out of time. Try getting up 30 minutes earlier than usual and going for a walk as a family. It's amazing how much better a.m. exercise makes everyone feel!"
What you're really doing when you model healthy behaviors for your kids day in and day out—and incorporate those behaviors into family life—is teaching them by example to assume personal responsibility for their health, says Gilliam.
"No employer, no insurance company, no doctor can ever give you the gift of fitness," he says. "Only you can decide to be fit. It's something you do for yourself because good health is worth the trade-offs. And when you learn that lesson as a child, it stays with you for a lifetime.
"It's all about the decisions we make every day," adds Gilliam. "Every time you serve broccoli instead of fries, every time you hand out water bottles instead of soda cans, every time you turn off the TV and go for a family bike ride, you're helping your kids learn that lesson in the most powerful possible way—by living it. There's no better gift you can give them."
Thomas B. Gilliam, Ph.D., is the founder and president of T. Gilliam & Associates, coauthor of the book Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.: The Simple Truth About Achieving & Maintaining a Healthy Body Weight, creator of the Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy.® wellness program, designed to teach workers how to achieve a healthy body weight, creator of healthybodyweight.com and moveitloseitlivehealthy.com, and founder and owner of Industrial Physical Capability Services, Inc. (IPCS).
Jane C. Neill, R.D., L.D., is the 2004 recipient of the Nutritionist of the Year Award for the State of Alabama Public Health. She is an active member of the American Dietetic Association and currently employed by the Alabama Department of Public Health, where she works with the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program as a WIC coordinator and a licensed dietitian. She has worked in the WIC program for over ten years, providing daily nutrition counseling for women, infants, and children.
For more information, visit healthybodyweight.com or moveitloseitlivehealthy.com.