Parents often ask me, “What changes can I make to my child’s lifestyle to help them be healthier?” Many have begun to realize that, compared to previous generations, today’s children are largely sedentary, have poor eating habits, get less sleep and participate in less physical activity. Not only does this cause them to suffer from risk factors for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses, many experts worry this could be the first generation of children whose life expectancy may be shorter than their parents. For parents who want to create a healthier lifestyle for their children, here are my top tips, which mirror the 5-2-1-0 campaign advocated by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
5 Servings of Fruit and Vegetables Per Day
- Increase fruits and vegetables. Kids should eat around five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, antioxidants and complex carbohydrates for energy, and are needed for normal growth and development of a child. They are also lower in calories, easy to prepare, very filling and contain nutrients that enhance cognition. It is important to serve children portions appropriate for their body size during mealtime or snacks. Remember, they are not mini-adults—give them a portion size that is not overwhelming.
- Tip: If your child is having a hard time eating vegetables, try some “dipping action.” For example, they can dip carrots or broccoli into their favorite low-fat yogurt or chocolate pudding. You’ll be surprised at how well this works—kids love to dip their food!
2 Hours of Less of Screen Time Each Day
- Reduce technology. Children today are very inactive, which is a major contributor to obesity. The current generation of kids is overly involved in technology, which promotes this sedentary lifestyle. Parents need to find creative ways to reduce the amount of time their kids spend interacting with technology, and get the kids outside for physical activity. If you need some inspiration on how to do this, I devised a program called the 2:1 Club, where children earn technology time through their physical-activity time.
- Tip: Have your kids keep a technology log for one day, adding up the time spent on computers, TV, cell phones, video games and tablets. Let them see first-hand how much time is spent being sedentary and work with them to reduce the time spent interacting with technology. Then, help them get on a schedule to decrease their technology time to less than two hours per day.
1 Hour of Physical Activity Each Day
- Increase physical activity. It is recommended that children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. This does not mean going to the gym and pumping iron, or getting on the treadmill at high intensities. Rather, it means getting outside to play—on a playground, for example, or by taking a walk or playing a game of basketball. Children need some form of movement. The good news is that it does not always have to be 60 minutes of continuous activity; it can be broken into smaller segments throughout the day.
- Tip: Try to “commercial-cize” each day. The average child watches four to six hours of television per day, while the ideal screen time is less than two hours her day. Sometimes this isn’t always possible, so why not have them exercise during the commercial breaks? They can jump rope, do jumping jacks, push-ups or run in place, which could add up to a lot of physical activity!
0 Servings of Sugar-sweetened Beverages
- Reduce the liquid candy. Water is a key ingredient to good health, but many children simply do not drink enough of it. Instead, they are consuming too many sugary drinks, or what I call “liquid candy.” (Some reports state that 25 to 40 percent of an average child’s daily calorie intake comes from liquids.) While it is acceptable for a child to periodically have a flavored drink, moderation is the key. Simply cutting back on these drinks and replacing them with water can significantly reduce a child’s daily caloric intake.
- Tip: Get the kids cool “water-only” water bottles to bring to school and on outings. Kids will drink what is there—so remove juice, sodas and other sugary beverages from the home; make these “sometimes” drinks to have on occasion outside the home. Make drinking water fun by adding lime, lemon, orange or even watermelon and strawberry slices.
And, not to be forgotten:
- Get plenty of sleep. We all know the importance of sleep. It helps the body rest and recharge, strengthens our immune system and helps kids focus better in school. But did you know that sleep helps keep the hormones that are related to appetite stable in your child’s body? This means that the brain recognizes when the stomach is full, so a child knows when to stop eating without overindulging.
- Tip: Have a bedtime routine, including a set bedtime. If kids know that bath time is followed by reading time, which is followed by sleeping time, they will fall asleep much more easily. For more information on how to help children get enough sleep, check out “How Does Sleep Affect My Child's Health.”
Len Saunders is a P.E. teacher in New Jersey. Saunders has been distinguished as a leader in the field of children's health, fitness, and wellness for almost 30 years. He has won awards at the local, state, and national levels for all his efforts to reduce childhood obesity. He has teamed up with the President's Council and the American Heart Association on various projects through the years. Len is best known for creating Project ACES (All Children Exercise Simultaneously), an internationally recognized program that literally has millions of children from all 50 states and over 50 countries exercise in unison during the first Wednesday in May. He has created dozens more nationally recognized programs that teach children about leading a healthy lifestyle. Len is also an accomplished author of five books, with his most recent, "Keeping Kids Fit," available at amazon.com. He can be reached at www.lensaunders.com.
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