We all know that obesity is a major problem in our country, and most people understand that this leads to chronic health problems. None of us want this for our kids, but it is sometimes very hard to know how to encourage our kids to adopt healthy habits. I am a pediatrician, so I discuss this often with patients and their families and do give specific pieces of advice like “avoid soda,” “be active every day” or “eats lots of fruits and vegetables.” This is all great advice, but it doesn’t take into account how our society encourages us to do very different things! Soda and junk foods are the choices that are primarily advertised, kids want to use devices all the time and as families, we have lots of competing demands for our time. In other words, our society is “obesogenic”, meaning it is a supportive environment for developing obesity, not preventing it!
Most of these choices take place outside of the doctor’s office and are not so black and white in real life. So, I’m going to put on my parent hat. Many of us are parents who don’t have time to take their kids on long hikes every day because they have a mountain of laundry to climb, bills to tackle, a house to clean as well as jobs, school schedules, etc.
This is what I have learned in my 12 years as a parent:
1. Think beyond of competitive sports. There is a lot of pressure on kids these days to play competitive sports and to be wildly successful in them. For some kids, competitive sports are great. However, most kids are just average athletes. Very few of our kids are going to make the elite soccer team, let alone go to the Olympics. And kids get burned out when physical activity is all about competition and performance. Kids naturally like to play and move, but that enjoyment gets squashed for some kids when it is only in a competitive context. Plus, competitive sports can get very expensive and leave little time for family physical activity.
2. Kids should be allowed to try lots of different activities; you are never going to get very far with activities your kids do not enjoy. In fact, this can discourage kids from being active! My daughter tried several different things before finding a sport that she enjoys. She tried ballet, gymnastics, soccer, and swimming and never seemed too excited about any of them. Then the new climbing gym opened and we decided to check it out as a family. She fell in love! We never thought she would become a climber – she tends to be pretty careful about taking risks. Don’t put your kids in a box at an early age – let them try and enjoy lots of activities and hope they find one that they want to do for pure enjoyment. These are the activities they will want to also do as adults. After all, you want your kids to develop healthy habits that will carry them into adulthood.
3. Do things with your kids, and hold yourself to the same standard. Our kids imitate us in so many ways, good and bad. Physical activity is one area where you can be a great example. You don’t have to run a marathon, but you can decide to go for a short walk after a tiring day rather than sitting on the couch. You can suggest a family bike ride rather than a trip to the ice cream shop (or combine them!). They will see that as normal behavior and develop their habits based on that behavior.
4. Include other kids and families. We have found that our kids enjoy things like hikes or swimming more when there are more kids involved. They also enjoy hikes more when there are rocks to climb or water to splash in. It means more dirty laundry, but maybe you can teach them to do that as well!
5. Developing a love for physical activity is an investment. We have been hiking with our kids since they were very small. Getting more than a half mile on many of these hikes involved major bribery. I can’t count the number of times that we have had to encourage them along with small treats – kind of like Hansel and Gretel. But you know what? This summer, my daughter hiked Half-Dome in Yosemite with me. It was a 16-mile hike! If you had asked me just a year ago if she would be able to complete something like that, I would have said no. It was so fun to do that together, and I could tell that she felt very accomplished. Those years of bribery now seem worth it!