America is a nation obsessed with weight. And justifiably so. Sixty percent of Americans are overweight.
An even more frightening fact is that the group getting fatter fastest are nine- to 13-year-olds.Being overweight causes all sorts of health problems, some immediately, some that show up decades later. Among the serious problems health professionals are seeing among kids these days: type II diabetes, until recently seen only in adults; high cholesterol and, among adolescent girls, osteoprenia, the precursor to osteoporosis, once a concern limited to women approaching menopause.
Physically fit children do better in other areas as well, according to Mary Jane Johnson, regional health and fitness manager for the Wellbridge Company, Albuquerque, N.M., which operates 46 multi-sport fitness centers nationwide.
"Kids who are physically fit have higher academic scores, higher self-esteem, less depression, the list goes on and on," she says.
But while the benefits of exercise and good nutrition are well known, the trick is making the transition from evenings spent in front of the television to evenings spent going on family walks, or jogs, or trips to the gym.
Meeting the Challenge
It's a challenge, but it's not impossible. It's a matter of setting priorities and managing your time, says Bill Gobin, founder and CEO of Lift for Kids (www.liftforkids.com), a non-profit organization that does one-day fitness workshops for children throughout the nation.
Parents can change their family's lifestyle, building in more exercise and teaching wiser food choices. And they can do it as a family, gaining not only health benefits but also the emotional benefits of doing things together in a society in which work, school and extracurricular activities can often make it hard for families to be together.
The Will family in San Jose, Calif., is an example of how families can make enormous changes in their lives. The Wills are a yours-mine-and-ours family, with six kids between them. Two, 14-year-old Andrea and 11-year-old Julianne, are still at home.
They and the parents have remade their lifestyle, spurred by the concern of one of their health-conscious older daughters, 18-year-old Ashley Johnson. The four have lost total of 80 pounds and 80 waistline inches in a family fitness program they began in early October.
Scott Will, the dad, has lost 40 pounds. Andrea has lost enough weight that she's looking forward to attending a Valentine's Day party she had planned to skip because shopping for a new outfit to wear to the party was too painful.
Julianne has gone from a size extra large to small or medium and is very proud of having just learned how to ride her bike. And mom Karen has discovered that she's a good cook even when she's not making heavy cream sauces or frying string beans in bacon grease.
"The girls are needing new clothes, Scott's needing new clothes, I'm needing new clothes," she says and adds that, with sugar cut out of the diets, the girls are happier kids who no longer suffer sugar highs and the subsequent crashes.
They did it by joining a gym whose trainers work with the whole family. They say the regimen has changed their lives. The entire family works out daily at the Bally's Pinnacle Fitness gym that Gobin works with that provided the Will family a free membership. They work with trainers not only on exercise but on nutrition. Karen emptied her kitchen of the HoHos, DingDongs, cakes and three kinds of ice cream that once predominated. When she shops now, she spends most of her time in the fresh food aisle.
The family that once watched television and snacked together now works out together. Cutting out television wasn't hard, according to both Andrea and Julianne, because they found it more fun to do active things. But breaking the habit of pulling something sweet from the refrigerator (the girls liked sweets and Scott loved ice cream) was tougher.
"I'd go to the fridge and I'd be like, oh my gosh, there's nothing sweet to eat," says Andrea. Gradually she adjusted to the apples and other fruits her mother gave her as alternatives.
To her surprise, Karen found her girls liked foods like yogurt and cottage cheese, things she had never even thought of offering them before.
The whole family credits the staff at the gym for motivating them as well as educating them.
The Wills made it through Thanksgiving without anyone gaining a pound, simply by cutting back on their usual menu. And with their new lifestyle and support for each other, Scott thinks the weight they've taken off will be hard to put back on.
Tips for Fitness
Build in exercises wherever you can. Mary Jane Johnson points out that using an automatic garage door opener instead of getting out of the car to open the door yourself can put on five pounds a year. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther out from the shopping center. Walk over to a co-worker's cube rather than e-mail. "We're technogized," says Johnson, "we need to get energized."
Practice what you preach. Johnson says kids learn three ways: by example, by example, and by example. Exercise regularly and make wise food choices yourself. The Wills go to the gym as a family. The Dahl family in Minneapolis, Minn., is another health-conscious family that uses their gym as a springboard to fitness. Harold and Kathy Dahl work out there daily, children Michael and Madison swim, play tennis, soccer or take gymnastics through the gym.
Kids need a minimum 20 to 30 minutes of sustained exercise a day. They used to get that in school in gym and recess, but budget cuts have forced many schools to eliminate their programs. Short-term, parents have to build that in that exercise themselves. An alternative to a gym are walks after dinner, rollerblading, skateboarding and, depending on where you live, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice-skating. Basketball, soccer, softball, swimming, skating, skateboarding, jumping rope, karate, Tae Kwan Do, are all options good for the whole family.
Some technology can be good. Brenda Rooney, clinical epidemiologist for community and preventive care services for the Gundersen Lutheran Health System in La Crosse, Wis., ran a healthy family research program in which families used pedometer. Pedometers work well not just with adults but also with kids, because they love watching the reading go up. The goal is 10,000 steps a day (something easily achievable if you walk a mile to work and back or by taking an evening and/or morning walk). Kids want to be active. Witness the relatively painless way Andrea and Julianne weaned themselves from sitting in front of the TV and snacking.
Keep your body hydrated and efficient by drinking water. Replace soda with water by keeping cold bottles of water in the refrigerator.
Set up a healthy diet for your family. A diet low in sugar and fat is critical. Aim for five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. "Vegetables can be fun through coloration and the sheer variety and texture of them along with taste," says Gary Gilmore, professor of health education and health promotion at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.
Turn to the Web. For dietary guidelines, Gilmore recommends the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which even has a special food pyramid for kids (www.usda.gov/cnpp/KidsPyra/). Another Web site, www.fitfamilyfitkids.com, a joint effort between the Centers for Disease Control and Gruner + Jahr Publishing, which puts out Parents, Child, Family Circle and Fitness magazines, features the ongoing stories of families building more exercise and better nutrition into their lives. It's got a different tip every day for getting kids to try vegetables, new activities, etc. Another Web site, www.fitday.com is an excellent weight management site, with a calorie and nutrition calculator, an activities calculator that estimates calories you've burned, weight loss tracking and similar functions.