This blog has been inspired by a recent question. A time poor business exec/family man I work with who takes his fitness very seriously (as you should) wanted to know the best use of his limited time to maximise strength, muscle and cardiovascular fitness goals. I felt this would make a good topic as all of us want to get ‘maximum bang for our buck’ from our training without becoming a slave to the gym. After all life is for living.
Reading Time: 6 mins
Word Count: 1000-1100 words
How to improve your child’s health
As a fitness and lifestyle coach I’ve been helping people get healthier for 20 years. One thing that is clear is that people in general are becoming fatter and less fit. This has been shown to have roots in childhood and as a parent myself this is a subject of particular interest to me.
Obesity in the UK stemming from childhood is one of the most serious health issues facing us as a nation going forward. Consider the recent NHS report on obesity, physical activity and diet for 2017. This draws on recent statistics which shows that 1 in 3 year 6 (10-11 years old) children were measured as obese or overweight. This can result in life-long increased health risk factors and social struggles. Furthermore, the American heart association considers childhood obesity within the USA to be the number one youth health concern ahead of alcohol and drug use.
This rise in childhood obesity is attributed to children doing less and eating more. Essentially the sheer availability of high energy junk food combined with non-active leisure pursuits (playing fifa on a PlayStation v’s actually playing football for example) has led to this massive health ticking time bomb.
As we are well aware of what has led to this problem you would expect an easy fix. Not so! Both motivating children to change their habits and of course re-education of care givers/parents can be a challenging process.
Children as many of you will know, have a psychological make up that is immature compared to that of an adult. Generally speaking they are more impulsive, emotional and less capable of rational/long term decision making. As such swapping out an immediate sweet treat for longer term better health may be a choice a child doesn’t fully understand nor is prepared to make.
Similarly, re- educating parents or care givers can prove difficult if they feel challenged, criticised or undermined reference their previous family food or activity choices.
The key is to break this issue down into three topics:
- Parental participation
- Encouraging perceived childhood competency and enjoyment
Children will copy and learn from the behavior of their parents. A recent study suggested that one obese parent increased the likelihood of childhood obesity threefold. Both parents being obese increased the risk to ten times normal. For any overweight child to have a good chance at success the report suggests that one of the parents must also participate with the required behavioral change (be it activity, diet or both).
The important take home message here is to consider your beliefs and behaviors about food and exercise at home as you will be influencing your children without even realising. For example if you speak about going to the gym or running as a chore to your partner your children may start to form a negative association with exercise. The same goes with food dislike such as vegetables.
Be sure to involve yourself in fun family physical activity, from running around, kicking a football or dancing with the little ones to family cycles and swimming as children get older. Anything active will do, just get moving as a family and be sure to be seen as enjoying it yourself.
Encouraging perceived childhood competency and enjoyment
In times gone by sport and exercise used to be a much greater part of school curriculum. It was thought that team work and exercise could encourage various personal qualities and as such children had access to a variety of free sports. This gave ample opportunity for the child to find an activity they enjoyed and also excelled at.
The problem today is TV, computer games, mobile phones, and social media to name but a few. All of these things compete for the child’s leisure time and to the younger child’s less develop brain may appear a more fun and better use of their time. Furthermore less sport availability in schools may make the infrequent exercise/sports sessions less enjoyable as the child may not have the chance to build up competence or skill and as such may develop negative feelings towards exercise. (This behavior is already well documented in children and adults alike and is why people often prefer activities they believe themselves to be good at).
So, as a parent your role here should be to expose your children to a variety of sports and activities from basketball to ballet and everything in between. Furthermore provide positive feedback and reinforcement. Activity doesn’t have to be competitive, or even exhausting. Anything they enjoy that involves movement should be encouraged. Playing in the play-park for example or foraging outside for Blackberries (the non-electrical kind). Neither are sports but they are active, and more healthy than digital entertainment.
The same goes here for healthy eating. Encourage your children to be interested in and enjoy the process of cooking and where food originated from. Take pleasure in healthy non-processed foods and make fun recipes and snacks as a family.
As alluded to at the beginning, younger children often lack the mental capacity to see the long term effects of current behaviors. It may not motivate a child to realise that this exercise or food will help them become a healthier adult. However, research on health education in schools suggests participation, habits and motivation can improve when children understand the ‘why’.
The take home message here is whilst children may not care for the longer-term benefits they may still be motivated by reasons more meaningful for them. For example ‘eating X or Y will give you more energy to play’ or ‘to be strong like mummy/daddy’. Or after sport ask them if they are feeling good. If so, ‘can they can see how their current happiness relates to the activity’?
This topic was slightly different to my normal blog but I felt it was important to address some concerns which could help us become the best we can for the sake of our children. After all, a healthy start in life is something we should all be given. Remember the keys are participating with your child, encouraging a vast array of activities and explaining how and why we do these things. If you follow the above you stand a great chance of helping your children grow up to lead healthy happy lives.
I hope you find this article useful, if so, please feel free to share on social media.