Q: Every winter, my children struggle with staying active and maintaining a healthy weight. This year, they are 10 and 12 years old, and they have already gained weight over the holidays. It seems they only want to stay inside and eat. What can I do to help them be active, stop overeating and keep their weight down?
A: You raise a concern that many parents struggle with: how to help their children be active, eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight. Although these concerns are present all year, the winter adds a degree of challenge. The number of overweight children in the U.S. has increased more than 30 percent in the last 30 years, activity levels are down considerably and screen time is up. What can you do as a parent to help your children?
Unfortunately, the days are gone when parents can simply tell children to “go outside and play,” especially during the cold, dark winter months. Instead, children want to be in front of screens (TV, computer, handheld devices) and frequently snacking, habits that undermine a healthy lifestyle. The antidote to these behaviors is physical activity and healthy eating. The burden is on parents to engage their children in a healthier lifestyle. Here are some ways that you can help your children be healthy any time of the year:
First and foremost, parents are the ultimate role models for being fit and eating healthy. So, limit your own TV and screen time, increase physical activity, and eat the right foods.
Remove TVs and computers from your children’s bedroom. They may object at first, but over time they will unconsciously sense the benefits of less screen time and feel more connected to the world around them.
Consider practicing the concept of being mindful. Mindfulness is being aware in the present and helps break unconscious habits such as snacking and using screens incessantly (constantly checking email or Facebook). For example, you and your children can ask yourselves, “Do I really want this food?” instead of thoughtlessly eating because that is what you typically do.
Make physical activity a family priority. Try starting with 10 minutes daily, working toward 30 minutes of activity each day. For example, dance to loud music that your children love or walk to the store to run errands. Consider organizing a group game or sport at a local gym. Take your children and their friends ice skating, sledding or swimming at the YMCA. Attempt to enroll them in activities in your community, but if they are resistant, it’s best not to force them. Instead, focus on finding activities that engage the whole family, or at least one parent and the children.
Given the proper clothing, spending time outdoors in the winter can be fun. Outdoor family activities include taking walks on the beach, going for nature hikes or exploring at the local Audubon sanctuary. Studies indicate that time spent outside increases mental health dramatically.
Avoid sugary drinks and instead introduce a water-drinking challenge to see who can drink the most water each day. Focus on what you should be eating, not what you should avoid eating. Do not eliminate sweets completely, but use healthy fruit and yogurt recipes to satisfy sweet cravings. Focus on eating fruits, vegetables, healthy grains and proteins, and engage your children in finding interesting new recipes to try.
Studies indicate that sleep is tied to weight maintenance. Make sure that your children are getting 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night, which decreases stress and the tendency to have food cravings.
Avoid weighing in on the scale too frequently, as this adds an evaluative component and emphasizes losing weight, rather than being healthy.
If your children’s school participates in “eating healthy” programs, emphasize that everyone in the school community is working toward the goal of being healthy.
Finally, expect some initial resistance. However, within a week of implementing consistent activity, good nutrition and behavior changes (limited screens, mindfulness), you and your children will experience benefits. The winter may seem like a hard time to introduce a healthy living program, however, winter adds the risk of being inactive, eating poorly and gaining weight. Despite resistance, your children will follow you — the leader, motivator and participant — in this new program for overall family health, physical and mental.
Parenting tip: As role models, parents have the greatest influence over children’s healthy habits. If engaging your children directly appears too overwhelming given all your other daily stresses, then start with a healthy lifestyle program for just you. Over time, your healthy lifestyle will have a significant impact on your children and they will want to join you.
A new reference for parents is “Fit Kids for Life: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy Children,” written by Brandon McIntosh with Chrisoula Kiriazis, M.D.
Your questions can be answered by Dr. Kate Roberts in an upcoming column. She can be reached at kate@kateroberts
andassociates.com. Roberts is a licensed psychologist with offices in Salem and South Hamilton. Her private practice helps parents, children and families develop strategies to work through and solve their problems.