How Do You Motivate a Couch Potato Child?

Oct. 21, 2002 -- Though he is only 10 years old, Garrett Larson recognized that the hours he spent surfing the Web and watching television were hurting him physically and emotionally. But he couldn't stop.

"People make fun of me because I can't run fast enough or I get out of breath and can't run as far as I used to," Larson said in a home video that his family shared with Good Morning America.

Larson admits that he is a couch potato who watches too much television.

"Like if I'm depressed or something, I go straight to the TV and just watch TV," Larson said.

Good Morning America asked weight loss specialist Jorge Cruise to visit the Larsons and try to help. At that point, the family was already clearly concerned about Garrett's frequent TV watching, and overeating.

TV and Childhood Obesity Linked

Garrett's mom, Sheila Larson, had been trying to keep him away from the television set as much as possible — even if it took a bit of scolding.

"Get out of that chair and turn off the TV now," she said on one home video.

"Garrett, quit munching," she says at another point.

If Sheila Larson sounds stern, it is because she is concerned about her son's health.

"I'm worried about the fact that … he's starting a pattern here," she said. "Where he'll be heavy and having to battle it all his life."

She and Garrett's dad, Jim Larson, were at their wit's end with the all-too-familiar combination: a kid who gets no exercise, and who loves to eat.

Studies show the incidence of obesity is lowest among children who watch one hour or less of TV per day, and it is highest among those who watch four or more hours. But children who like television can trick parents into thinking they're not watching.

"He'll shut the TV off in this room and I think he's outside playing," Jim Larson said. "And next thing I know, I'll go in our bedroom where we have another TV set and he'll be in there watching the same program."

Physical Complaints, Plus Teasing

The physical impacts of this inactivity are showing already, his mom said.

"He has complained about tightness in his chest and when the other kids at school run the mile, he walks it," Sheila Larson said. "And is very often the last one in. And that's not good."

But for Garrett, the pain isn't just physical. It's emotional.

"My sister makes fun of me sometimes," Garrett said. "She calls me fat."

It makes him very upset, the boy said, crying.

His mom is aware of the teasing from his siblings.

"We have caught both Corrine and Krista teasing him about — they've called him fat boy," she said. "And that hurts."

A Three-Point Plan

Nevertheless, all the teasing, nagging, cajoling and punishing had not motivated Garrett. So, Cruise visited the Larsons and outlined a three-point plan that could change Garrett's world.

Less TV, More Exercise: The first step was to cut down on Garrett's total time in front of the TV. When he does watch the tube, he exercises at the same time by standing up and dancing or moving each time there is a commercial.

A child who exercises every day is 60 percent less likely to get cancer and 80 percent less likely to develop heart disease as an adult.

"Garrett is going to be doing some strength training exercises that are going to help him boost his metabolism," Cruise said.

Cruise suggests the following three exercises for children, as young as seven years old.

a. Bent Knee Push-ups: Bent knee push-ups are just like regular push-ups, except you may place your knees on the floor. Make sure hands are positioned directly below chest. Slowly bend elbows and lower chest toward floor. Perform three sets, with 12 repetitions each. b. Bird Dog: Get down on hands and knees, then lift left arm and extend it straight out in front of you, parallel to the floor while simultaneously lifting right leg, and extending it straight behind you, also parallel to floor. Return to original position. Perform 12 repetitions, and then switch sides. Do three sets on each side. c. Squats: Stand straight with arms extended in front of you parallel to the floor. Now bend your knees and sit back, as though you are going to sit down in a chair. Return to standing position. Perform 12 repetitions, and do 3 sets of each.

Portion Control at Mealtime: The second step was watching Garrett's portion size. He had no idea how much he was eating, but by using a plastic divided dinner plate, Cruise showed Garrett how to better balance his diet with appropriate portions.

Cruise said that a 9- or 10-inch dinner plate should be half full of vegetables (or fruit for breakfast), a quarter full of protein (lean chicken, fish, egg whites, or lean meat), and another quarter should contain carbohydrates (whole grains, potatoes, bread or pasta.) There can be a small amount of fat included in the meal, such as flax oil, olive oil, or 1 teaspoon of butter. If the child is still hungry, he or she should load up on more vegetables or fruit.

Make Family Exercise a Ritual: The third step was to get Garrett to go out and play, at least three times a week. Good choices include playing tag with friends, Twister with the family, or team sports such as basketball, soccer or baseball.

His entire family, including his sisters, should join in on the active fun. Even everyday chores like walking the dog are a great way to add exercise to a child's life.

"Support is the secret to losing weight whether you're an adult or a kid," Cruise said. "And for kids, the most important support system is their parents."

It's also good for the child to understand what he or she can accomplish. Garrett has already established in his mind what the changes will do for him.

"If I lose weight, I think that I'll be able to run faster, and run further," he said. "I feel much better, more confident about stuff."

It won't be easy for Garrett over the long haul, but he is already seeing results. A month after he started his new fitness and diet program, he was no longer the last to cross the finish line in gym class. It was a big deal for him to have his classmates cheering him on as he completed the run faster than ever.

His parents hope it's only the beginning, and that he won't spend his childhood stuck on the couch.