By Polly Keary, Editor
Summer vacation is supposed to be a time when kids get outside and play, but all too often, parents find them listlessly sprawled on the couch, watching TV or playing endless games of Angry Birds on their Kindles for hours at a time.
How much lounging about is too much, and how can parents coax kids into getting much-needed exercise?
Getting creative is one key, she said.
Two hours on the couch is about the maximum a kid should get before being encouraged to get up and move. But it doesn’t have to be a chore.
“Make it fun,” she said. “Kids like games. There’s a ton of ideas to get them exercising without realizing they are doing it. Have physical exertion as part of every day, and for kids that aren’t necessarily competitive, it doesn’t have to be running or playing a sport. It can be walking the dog or join on a hike, instead of a triathlon.”
One model for improving healthy behavior is the ACT program, or Actively Changing Together, a YMCA program for the families of seriously overweight children. The program includes a free 12-week membership for the child’s entire family, during which they learn ways to practice a healthy lifestyle.
Although that program is only available to children referred by a physician, the practices taught can be of use to any family with children that could stand to get more exercise or better eating habits.
The families each week try a different physical activity, from Zumba to swimming to karate, in order to see what they like well enough to do regularly.
Exercise is very important for many reasons, including muscle tone, cardiovascular fitness, and even mental well-being.
But parents concerned about children’s exercise levels during the summer should also heed their diet, said Price.
“You can alter your body composition through nutrition,” she said. “People like to work out, but you hear it all the time, people say they work out so they can have that donut. You can see huge results just from changing the way you eat.”
They also talk about nutrition, and learn how to make healthy snacks and meals.
The main premise behind the ACT program is that family culture often drives behavior, and to change behavior for the better, the entire family should be involved.
The program has had good results for many families. And there have been some poignant moments, said Price.
“We have a testimonial, and one little boy, who had been sheltered and had no access to the outside from his apartment, said, ‘I didn’t know I could run.’ It breaks your heart.”
Price cautions against trying to change behavior too rapidly.
“When you are looking at behavior change, be aware it’s a marathon,” she said. “It’s a long haul. You aren’t going to see obvious results tomorrow.”
Such an incremental behavior change might involve visiting a park twice a week for a month, or taking all soft drinks out of the house.
Once that change has become habit, then another change can be made.
But even a few small changes can make the difference between a child who learns how to take care of him- or herself, and one for whom bad habits are normal.
Simple changes to nutrition habits could include:
Eight ideas to get kids moving (and you, too):