Parents usually have the best intentions when it comes to making sure their kids are growing up healthy. But it can be a challenge, especially with a picky eater or a child who prefers videogames to playing outdoors. The reality is that exhausted and overworked parents often end up making food choices based on convenience—serving the meal that's most appealing, not necessarily the most nutritious, or offering it in front of a TV. Such habits take a toll. Last year, the International Obesity Task Force estimated that more than 35 percent of American children ages 6 to 17 exceeded their ideal body weight, which can lead to serious long-term health problems like heart disease and diabetes, as well as depression and low self-esteem. Good health choices can also go a long way—not just toward physical health, but mental health and intellectual success, too. Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia found last year that kids who play vigorously for 20 to 40 minutes actually do better in school and are happier.
It's no secret that kids have loads more energy than their parents, but when they're allowed to play hours of videogames or watch TV for too long, it becomes harder for their bodies to adapt to doing something active. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age 2 have no screen time, and that kids older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of TV. A study published last month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that cutting kids' TV and computer time by half reduced the amount of food they ate and helped them lose weight. Researchers said they believed the drop was related to reduced exposure to ads for unhealthy fast foods and beverages. So encourage outdoor playtime with organized sports or tossing or kicking a ball around in a park or in the yard. By sprinkling exercise sessions into the family's weekend schedule, you're building the framework for an active lifestyle.
Kids need a positive role model to show them what it means to take care of their bodies. As a parent, think about the kinds of foods you like to snack on and what you like to do with your spare time. If you encourage your kids to play outside, but then spend all afternoon on the couch watching TV, you're likely to send them a mixed message. It's important to practice what you preach. Your habits should reflect the lifestyle you'd like your children to have.