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Tips for Families to Help Children Improve Diet and Exercise

Girl eating lunchFamilies need to take simple steps to help their children eat nutritious foods and become more active.

The advice is part of the new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which aim to give practical steps to families to help children maintain a healthy weight. They also offer guidance on how to include healthy habits into daily life such as eating a well-balanced diet, increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary behaviors.

“It is never too early for a family to make changes that will help a child keep or achieve a healthy weight,” said Sandra Hassink, MD, FAAP, president of the AAP and co-author of the report. “Families can improve their eating habits in a variety of ways, but it is important for healthy eating and physical activity to be tailored to the child’s developmental stage and family characteristics.”

The recommendations comes as childhood obesity is now recognized as a public health priority. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, according to statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

To help children, the AAP encourages parents and families to model healthy behaviors. Families can take simple steps to eat healthier. Changing the food parents bring into the home – and how they store and serve it — can help children make healthful choices. The AAP recommends:

  • Buy fewer sugar-sweetened drinks, high-calorie snacks and sweets.
  • If you plan to serve these types of foods at a special celebration, buy them shortly before the event, and remove them immediately afterward.
  • Keep healthy food in plain sight. Bring back the fruit bowl. Water, fruits, vegetables and other low-calorie snacks should be readily available and on the kitchen table or counter, or in the front of the shelf in the refrigerator.
  • Keep high-calorie foods be less visible. Wrap them in foil rather than clear wrap, and place in the back of the fridge or pantry.
  • Encourage children to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

The AAP also recommends cutting back how often and how long children watch TV. One way to achieve this is to have fewer TV sets in the home and to remove the TV and other media from the bedroom and the kitchen. 

Sleeping enough every night is also critical. Children who sleep less than 9 hours a night are more likely to be overweight or obese; focusing on bedtime, and understanding how much sleep children need at various ages can help improve a child’s overall health and well-being.

Families can enjoy physical activities together to meet the recommended 60 minutes of activity a day, the report recommends. This can include participating in team sports, going to a park, playground or walking/bicycle trails, bowling, dog walking, using the stairs or walking to a destination rather than driving. The AAP offers a physical activity “prescription” that pediatricians can use to serve as a reminder to families and patients about the goals they have set for physical activity.

“Even when families have knowledge of healthy behaviors, they may need help from pediatricians to motivate them to implement behavior changes,” said Stephen Daniels, MD, FAAP, chair of the AAP Committee on Nutrition. “Parents and other family members are strongly encouraged to adopt the same fitness and lifestyle changes as the child.”

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics news release, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics

+ Does a child in your life need help losing weight? More children today struggle with being overweight and obese than in years past. Read about the youth fitness program offered at Bon Secours Sports Performance to help children reach and maintain a healthy weight.

+ Improve your health by learning about nutrition from the Registered Dietitians at Bon Secours In Motion. They also offer group and individual counseling for living with type 2 diabetes.