MILWAUKEE, WI – The key to helping children struggling with their weight starts with helping the family, according to TOPS Club, Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the nonprofit weight-loss support organization. For the first time in history, the current generation of kids may have a shorter lifespan than their parents. When children learn behaviors early on, those habits can last a lifetime – so teaching healthy habits from the beginning is important. And working together to be healthier can improve the weight and health of the entire family.
Consider the recommendations of Joseph Skelton, M.D., MS, Director of Brenner FIT (Families in Training), a childhood obesity research, prevention, and treatment program at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who emphasizes that when you work as a team, success comes easier. Dr. Skelton is an expert on childhood obesity and a contributing author to TOPS’ lifestyle guide Real Life: The Hands-on Pounds-Off Guide (available through Amazon.com).
Focus on Habits
Changing a habit requires more than willpower — it takes hard work. Some tools that help are tracking, making a healthy home, and the “rule of 3s.”
Monitoring and tracking
Regularly write down (daily or twice daily) what you and your family are doing, so you can get a sense of your habits. If your family is trying to take a walk together twice a week, you may get to Saturday and realize you didn’t even do it once. Writing things down keeps you on track to achieve goals. If your tracking sheet is hanging where everyone will see it, then your family will be reminded every day to take a walk. You’d be surprised how well this works. Making a chart with pasteboard and stickers may work well for a family with younger children, while teens may prefer to write in a journal or notebook. Use the tracking sheets to support each other’s healthy habits, not to criticize or shame.
Making a healthy home
If the candy jar in the kitchen is too tempting, put it away. If TVs in every room keep your family stuck on the couch, then turn them off and head to the park. Figure out what is getting in the way of reaching family goals. If you don’t have time to grocery shop once or twice a week, and fast food keeps finding its way into the house, then adjust the family schedule. Make time for what is important. Schedule time for family health, and, suddenly, those goals aren’t so out of reach.
Snacks, meals and drinks
Following the rule of 3s can help you make healthy choices for you and your family.
Grains, breads, and cereals: Lots of breads and cereals say whole wheat, but that doesn’t mean they have whole grains or fiber. Make sure these foods have more than three grams of fiber per serving.
Drinks: It is best to keep the sugar out of what we’re drinking, even if it is 100 percent juice. Some “juices” are mostly water and added sugar. Look for drinks that have less than three grams of sugar per serving.
Meals: When we skip meals, we tend to overeat at the next meal and eat foods that are less healthy. Eat three meals a day, no skipping.
Snacks: Who said snacks are supposed to be salty or sweet? Snacks are food and should be seen as mini-meals. Here’s a good rule of thumb for when we need a snack: Our bodies need a little boost when we haven’t eaten in three hours and won’t eat for another three hours.
Ideas for Active Families
Are you and your family getting some amount of activity daily? It doesn’t have to be exercise; a quick walk in the morning and a game of tag with your kids in the afternoon counts, too. Here are some ways to have fun and be active together.
Family night at the movies is always fun, but try planning something that is actually active. Go bowling, take a hike, or go to your local pool. Plus, it will be extra family time, bringing you closer together.
Younger children often are not excited about the gym or a fitness video. They want to play. Talk as a family about which activities can be fun. For some children, it is sports. For some families, it is martial arts. For the youngest, it may be active play, using imagination and creativity. The main point is, get away from the TV or computer, and move your body.
Exergaming involves playing video games that actually require movement. Some special fitness games include yoga, balance, or stretching. Others require getting outside, such as geocaching, which uses global positioning systems (GPS) to search for hidden items placed by someone else. Many of these games can get your heart pumping and build strength.
Keep in Mind
Sometimes the hardest work in raising a healthy child and a fit family is parenting. The world we live in is unhealthy, and there are pressures all around. Reach out to other parents, parenting professionals, or parenting guides to develop skills to move your family in a healthy direction.
Positive parenting: Remember that it is always better to build healthy habits and behaviors with praise and positive reinforcement rather than punishment and criticism. As best you can, keep it positive.
Rules of the family: Does your family eat with the TV on? Do your children have to finish their homework before watching TV? Try to set house rules that encourage healthy behavior and development. Don’t be too strict or it can backfire. Talk as a family about what the rules should be, then set an example to follow them.
Communication: Talking to your child about health can be difficult. Oftentimes, we expect younger children to understand healthy eating when they really just want to be like other kids their age. Take your child’s development into consideration when talking about nutrition and activity. It is never too early to teach good health habits, but don’t expect your 10-year-old to always understand why it’s important to limit fast food and avoid soda at every meal. Be careful with words you use — criticism can hurt and do damage to relationships. If your child is overweight, it’s likely he or she has been teased and may have self-esteem issues. Be encouraging, supportive, and positive, but still be the parent.
The rest of the family: What about family members who aren’t overweight? The habits and behaviors discussed are healthy for your entire family regardless of how much they weigh. Addressing things like picky eating and family rules can help everyone.