Tips for Preventing Childhood Obesity

Contributor: Adrienne Warber
Family playing with a ball outdoor

Childhood obesity is common, affecting millions of children within the United States and beyond. It's not merely an aesthetic problem, as it can lead to serious complications including diabetes and high blood pressure. Parents should take steps to help their kids reach a healthy weight to avoid health problems now and in the future.

The Childhood Obesity Problem

"Childhood obesity is unfortunately still on the rise," said Dr. Diana Lattimore, an assistant professor in the Exercise and Sport Science Department at the University of San Francisco (USF). "Major physical and mental health problems are associated with obesity as well as chronic diseases in children, such as Type II Diabetes and risk factors for heart disease."

More Than Inactivity

Dr. Lattimore said that while being active is important for children, inactivity is not the entire issue. "Being regularly active is definitely a huge part of the equation with 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended for children. But exercise is not the only element of providing for healthy children. Families also need to make sure children are eating a balanced diet with a significant portion of fruits and vegetables. Decreasing or eliminating soda consumption is another major aspect of controlling obesity."

The Causes of Obesity

There are four main reasons for the increase in childhood obesity, according to Dr. Lattimore. Each of the following causes are completely preventable:

  • Increase in soda consumption
  • Decrease in fruits and vegetable consumption
  • Decrease in overall physical activity including PE in school
  • An increase in sedentary activities (TV, video games, computer usage)

The Importance of Energy Balance

"Staying at a healthy weight is all about energy balance; energy (or calories) in, versus energy (calories) out. Consumption of 3500 calories equals one pound. The foods and drinks we consume give us energy, but we need to be smart about what we are consuming so we are getting enough carbohydrates, proteins and fats without consuming extra calories," said Dr. Lattimore.

The Problem With Empty Calories

"A 20oz bottle of soda contains 250 calories without any nutritional value. Therefore, with every 20oz. soda consumed in a day, that is 250 empty calories (no nutrient value) added to our total caloric intake. To maintain current weight, a person must expend as many calories as they bring in during the day; therefore, adults and children need to be physically active every day in order to maintain weight, much less lose weight. Children unfortunately are consuming less milk (which contains nutrients - protein, carbohydrates, minimal fat as well as some vitamins and minerals) and more soda throughout the day. Each 12oz can of soda has been shown to increase the risk of obesity," said Dr. Lattimore.

The Importance of Exercise

"Current physical activity recommendations for children are 60 minutes, but we need to be careful that it is 60 minutes of actual activity and not 30 minutes with 30 minutes of break time," said Dr. Lattimore. "However, younger children (preschool age) do shorter bouts of activity and then they rest before playing again. This is a natural part of development. It is fine as long as children end up with at least 60 minutes of activity time throughout the day."

Cute sisters jump roping

Minimum Recommendation for Activity

"All children need at least 60 minutes of moderate-vigorous daily physical activity," said Dr. Lattimore. "For overweight children, engaging in more physical activity will help lower weight." Weight loss will be more successful when exercise is partnered with dietary changes to reduce empty calories and increase nutrient-dense foods.

Encouraging Exercise

"For kids, having fun is the biggest key!" said Dr. Lattimore. "Stop thinking of it as 'exercise' and go back to thinking of playing. Expending energy is what we are after. Children can participate in organized sports such as soccer, baseball or gymnastics, but sports are not the only way kids can be active. Jumping rope, skipping, relay races, riding bikes, dizzy bat race, obstacle courses, etc. are all considered physical activity. Parents need to make it a priority to start engaging in some of these activities with their children."

The Importance of Cardio

Dr. Lattimore stressed the importance of cardio for kids. "Parents should encourage cardiovascular types of activity as well as strength building exercises since both are vital to overall health. However, the majority of the 60 minutes should be cardiovascular, especially for those trying to control weight. Strength exercises like push-ups or lunges ensure healthy bones and muscles; however, cardiovascular activities are most important for heart health and maintaining a healthy weight."

Exercise for Overweight Children

"Be creative and make games out of the activities," advised Lattimore. "Often, overweight children don't want to play sports or participate in games because they are afraid they will get ridiculed by other children. Therefore, it is important to do things to make overweight children more apt to participate in games or sports. A variety of things can be done to help overweight children build confidence and have fun."

Making Activity Accessible

Dr. Lattimore advised, "One thing that can be done is to change the rules of typical games so everyone is starting off on the same playing field. For example, when playing baseball, make everyone bat with their weakest hand and then run backwards to the bases. This makes the game more fun and less about who is the most talented. Another idea to initially engage children and make them feel successful is to have them play some of the active games on Wii, such as boxing or the Wii Fit."

Parental Involvement

Parents should take an active role in getting their kids moving, said Dr. Lattimore. "Riding bikes to the park or through the neighborhood, taking walks or hikes together, climbing stairs instead of using an elevator, swimming, playing or practicing sports together are all fun and healthy ways to be active together as a family. Also, parents can make healthy snacks, such as ants on a log (celery with peanut butter and raisins), with their kids to take with them on any family adventure."

Lead by Example

Parents can't expect their kids to willingly eat healthy and exercise if they never witness their parents doing these things. Make healthy eating choices and ample activity part of your family's culture so everyone in your family can benefit from healthy habits and avoid obesity.

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Tips for Preventing Childhood Obesity