You and your siblings snickered when your parents told you stories about having to walk three miles a day to school through a raging blizzard. You had no idea the challenge you would face many years later shooing your own kids off the couch.
Physical inactivity is a major health hazard in this country, contributing to a dramatic rise in the incidence of obesity and associated problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The American Heart Association recommends that children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity. Despite your parents' complaints, you had no problem at all getting that much activity -- walking or biking to school, daily PE classes, after school dances, swimming, shooting hoops in the backyard.
With television, cell phones, iPads, video games, Facebook and Twitter, young people today can travel all around the world without getting out of the chair. The average American child, age 8 to 18, spends three to four hours a day watching television and even more when other screen activity (computers, video games, DVDs) are included. Physically inactive kids gain weight and, if they gain enough, develop health problems. The incidence of type 2 diabetes, once seen mostly in middle-aged and older adults, has quadrupled among American children.
What can you do to reverse this trend? You know how effective your parents were when they lectured or preached at you. However, there are strategies that work.
Attack Inactivity First: Even without prodding, most youngsters will find active things to do once the distraction of the TV or computer screen is removed.
Most pediatricians recommend setting up a screen-time budget with kids. Discuss the issue with them and negotiate a reasonable number of hours per week. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends one to two hours or less daily of media time, a rule that might have to be implemented gradually for kids who are used to spending five hours or more online or watching TV. The AAP also recommends that parents remove TVs from children's bedrooms and try to serve as positive role models for moderate television viewing.
Set A Good Example: The same medical groups that recommend 60 minutes a day of physical activity for kids advise adults to get at least 30 minutes a day. How are you doing with that? It's for your own health, but your kids will benefit by having a positive role model. My neighbor goes to the YMCA early every morning for a vigorous 30-minute swim. He invited his son to join him, and soon they were both committed to lap swimming -- counting and timing their laps.
Schedule Active Family Outings: Families that play together stay healthy together. After dinner, on weekends, for vacation, parents can plan family outings that include hiking, canoeing, swimming or other physical activities. Take a walk together after dinner; schedule a 10-mile bicycle trip for Saturday. All of these activities, including your vacations, can be planned together as a family. Kids will understandably resist if they feel activities or schedules are imposed upon them. Ask them where they'd like to go, what they'd like to do. Then work together to find activities that everyone in the family will enjoy.
Encourage Team Sports: At all ages and skill levels, youth sports leagues are available in most communities--baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball. Kids who participate in these leagues gain skills of leadership, teamwork and strategy as well as fitness and coordination. Maybe most important, a young competitive athlete usually finds she has little time to sit in front of a TV set.
Show that you take your child's sports activity seriously by coming to games and cheering them on.
Respect Your Child's Feelings: Children may resist certain activities or sports if they feel self conscious about being overweight or not very good at sports. Be sensitive to their feelings and don't embarrass them.
When you were in junior high and high school, your physical education teacher made sure you had a well-rounded fitness program. Today, many schools are cutting back on or even eliminating PE requirements. Keep in touch with your school board to make sure this doesn't happen in your school district. Physical activity sharpens the mind and can have an effect on mood and enthusiasm for learning. Even more important, it keeps cardiovascular circulation strong, builds bones and muscles and improves metabolism. Don't let your children miss out on these benefits.
This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace, the advice and care you receive from your health care provider.