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:
- Keep a pitcher of lemon water in the fridge. It might not as tasty as a can of soda, but it’s an alternative that kids will drink.
- Add a salad to every dinner. Restaurants serve a salad before the main course, why shouldn’t you? It’s a great way to take the edge off hunger with vegetables before starting the entree.
- Make your own juice. Juicers don’t cost much, and juice can be surprisingly energizing. It’s a good way to get a big dose of fresh fruits and veggies in easily.
- Keep a dish of almonds out. They are proven to help control hunger in a healthy way, and people who eat them regularly tend to be leaner than those who don’t. Also, keep a fruit bowl out, and don’t keep chips in the house.
- Switch to bread with at least three grams of fiber per slice. It’s worth spending a little extra to get a brand of bread that tastes good while providing much-needed fiber to the diet.
- Make soup. Soups tend to be hydrating, nutritious and lower calorie than many entrees.
- Cut out soda. It’s hard to do once you’ve developed a taste for it, but there are few worse offenders in the American refrigerator. They are heavy in sugar and can add as many as 1,000 unneeded calories a day to one’s diet.
Eight ideas to get kids moving (and you, too):
- Schedule 30-minutes into your day, three times a week, to do something active with the kids, perhaps after dinner or after school. Kick a soccer ball, walk the dog, set up badminton in the back yard or a ping pong table in the garage.
- Keep TV and electronic devices out of kids’ rooms, lest they be tempted to stay indoors all day. And limit TV time in the main room, as well.
- Instead of driving to the library or the mailbox or the corner store, walk. Make a habit of never driving when the weather is nice and the walk is less than half a mile. Take the kids. Also, bike with the kids for longer trips.
- Make play dates at parks, pools and indoor recreation areas. Kids tend to be a lot more active in groups.
- Give the kids allowances for mowing the lawn, weeding, raking leaves and doing other physical chores. Get out there with them.
- Get a dog. There’s nothing like a dog to force a person to get outside. Dogs need to be walked regularly and it’s a great family activity.
- Buy a few gifts for the kids that promote activity, such as jump ropes, hula hoops, skateboards, soccer balls or anything that makes moving fun.
- If it’s in the budget, join a family-friendly gym. The YMCA has a sliding income-based scale for membership dues, and dozens of ways to keep kids moving, ranging from inexpensive swim lessons to open basketball courts.