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5. Engage in indoor and outdoor activities as an alternative to watching television.
Physical activity behaviors among children and adolescents are determined by a number of factors: the children's stage of growth and fitness; access to safe facilities for sports and play; opportunities for sedentary activities such as television watching or computer games; confidence in their own physical capability; and parental role modeling or support. Actively playing and enjoying a physical activity with kids is a major way parents can help children develop and continue it. Walking together to school, in the park, to the store, etc. sets physical activity patterns early and encourages quality time without interruptions from television and phone calls.
How to do it:
• Instead of always suggesting "a walk," try going on a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood or walking to a specific destination (movie, mall, or local event).
• Instead of watching cartoons for two to three hours on Saturday mornings, try limiting television to one hour and planning an hour-long family outing or game afterwards.
• Instead of letting friends watch television together at each other's houses during play dates, try making a pact with the friend's parents that the TV will be off-limits during play dates; help them get started with alternative activities such as putting on a mock dance contest or building a fort.
• Instead of holding kids' birthday parties at pizza parlors or fast-food restaurants, where food is the focus, try having kids' parties and family gatherings at a park. Rather than ask other adults to bring potluck dishes and desserts, ask them to be in charge of planning an activity.
6. Get enough sleep.
Some may be surprised to see sleep as a recommendation. But time for sleep has a role in eating well and being active. Children ages seven to 18 need at least nine hours of sleep a night, while younger children need more. Research has demonstrated that tired children are much more likely to eat excess foods in search of more energy to keep going. They are also much less likely to engage in the recommended one hour of vigorous physical daily activity when they are tired. In at least two studies, a strong inverse association was observed between sleeping hours and childhood obesity: less sleep, more body fat.
How to do it:
• Instead of letting children stay up late watching television, working on the computer or talking on the phone, try having a consistent bedtime policy
• Instead of saving homework for after dinner, which can push back bedtime, try setting a goal of finishing homework before dinner. Have children work on homework at the kitchen table during dinner preparation so parents and children can interact.
• Instead of overscheduling and overcommitting to extracurricular activities that spread the family thin and interfere with sleep and family mealtimes, try being realistic and curbing expectations of what kids
Sharron Dalton is associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food studies and Public Health at New York University. Most recently she edited Overweight and Weight Management: The Health Professional's Guide to Understanding and Practice (1997).
For more information on preventing obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles in children, consult Our Overweight Children: What Parents, Schools and Communities Can Do to Control the Fatness Epidemic.