Some school-aged children can’t wait to get home from school, stake out a place on the couch, and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening watching TV. Physical activity is just not on their radar screens, at least not by choice.
Not surprisingly, children who fit this profile may be on a slippery slope to a life of obesity. There are a lot of them. Several years ago, when a group of children 6 to 12 years old participated in programs of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, only 50% of girls and 64% of boys could walk or run a mile in less than 10 minutes. If that same study were conducted today, when the obesity epidemic seems to be gaining momentum, those statistics might be even more troubling.
During your child’s school-age years, your goal should be not only to get your child moving, but to turn exercise into a lifelong habit. There are plenty of opportunities for your child to keep active. In most communities, children in this age group can choose to get involved in a number of organized sports, including Little League, youth soccer, a martial arts class, or community basketball, hockey, or football leagues. Team sports are fun and the perfect fit for many youngsters, and they can help them manage their weight.
However, group activities like these aren’t for everyone. Some obese children feel self-conscious about participating in team sports and are much more comfortable getting their exercise in unstructured settings. For them, free play on the playground, ice skating, in-line skating, bowling, or even running through sprinklers is good exercise. Let your child choose something that he finds enjoyable, and once he discovers it, encourage him to make it a regular part of life. At the same time, limit TV watching or time spent on the computer or playing video games to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day. Studies have shown that the more time children devote to watching TV, the more likely they are to consume foods like pizza, salty snacks, and soda that contribute to weight gain.
What if your child insists that he doesn’t want to do any physical activity? Explain that it’s important and might even be fun to find a new activity. Try to find activities that fit the family’s budget and time commitments and have him choose among several alternatives.
Some children might prefer to go with a friend or parent. Be creative and emphasize participation, not competition. To help your school-aged youngster become physically active, recruit the entire family to participate. Let your overweight child know that all of you, parents and siblings alike, are in his corner, and even if he has rarely exercised before, he can start now with the entire family’s support. Go for family bike rides (with everyone wearing a helmet). Swim together at the Y. Take brisk walks. Learn to cross-country ski. Sign up for golf lessons.
You can even do activities of daily living together, such as household chores. Spend a Saturday afternoon cleaning the house or raking leaves. No matter what you choose, regular activity not only burns calories, but also strengthens your child’s cardiovascular system, builds strong bones and muscles, and increases flexibility. It can also diffuse stress, help him learn teamwork and sportsmanship, boost his self-esteem, and improve his overall sense of well-being.