In a time when we rarely encourage outside-play, things such as television, social media and computers have become substitutes for much-needed activity.
Globally, 108 million children are obese. These dangerous levels of obesity make it more important than ever to guide children’s habits. Parents are the first heroes children know, show them how heroes stay healthy – it’s well worth the sweat.
Cut screen time
Growing up, some may have heard, ‘you’ll get square eyes if you watch TV for too long’.
While you never saw anyone develop square eyes, it was a clever tactic because parents knew: If children do not play and move enough, they do not eat or sleep well.
This principle has not changed, but children’s behaviour has. Between the ages of 10 and 17, children can watch TV for up to three hours a day and, in some cases, they are glued to screens for a quarter of a day – with this habit and the accompanying inactivity increasing as they age.
Screens have a role in entertainment and education but its overuse is a concern, with idleness and obesity the most harmful consequences. Children who spend more than four hours a day in front of a screen are twice as likely to be overweight. In South Africa, there has been a striking rise in childhood obesity. In recent times, 10 per cent of girls and 8 per cent of boys are overweight, compared with only 7 per cent of girls and 6 per cent of boys in the 80s.
What to do? The key is finding a balance between screen time and other activities that stimulate social development and physical activity. Create a cell phone ‘parking lot’ at home, and limit use of screens for everyone in the family.
Play more and show support for being active
Regular activity helps children function better, maintain a healthy weight and learn social skills. “The most powerful influence is parents who do physical activity with their children, and give them encouragement,” said Dr Craig Nossel, head of Vitality Wellness. Parents can instil a love of activity and build movement into the daily routine.
- Make play fun: Enjoy the classics – Hopscotch, Hide n Seek, Eggie in the Middle and Stuck in the Mud.
- Give gifts of health: A cricket bat or soccer ball will get kids moving.
- Schedule active time: Plan family walks, a day with friends and games like soccer, hand tennis or Frisbee. Replace Friday night pizza with a putt-putt tournament.
- Encourage a variety of activities: Playing a variety of games and sports exposes kids to different skill sets, movement patterns and coordination, as well as gain different types of fitness.
- Be a sports supporter: Turning up to watch your kids play soccer or swim in a gala, or arranging lifts to practices sends the message that you support an active lifestyle. Parkrun together at a free, weekly 5km run or walk on Saturday mornings.
Good eating habits for life
Eating habits in childhood have a major influence on what you eat as an adult. So the first step towards lifelong healthy eating is to consistently expose children to a varied and healthy diet.
According to the Vitality ObeCity Index, 44 per cent of food advertisements in 2017 used child actors, and 20 per cent of adverts were aired during children’s TV shows.
The most frequently advertised foods include foods high in fat, sugar, salt, convenience meals and sugar-sweetened drinks. And, it is highly effective because it increases both preference for and intake of these advertised foods.
Dietitian, Terry Harris, offers these tips to encourage healthy eating:
- Cut, peel and segment fruit in ready-to-eat, bite-sized pieces.
- Name food after superheroes. When children think their role model eats healthy foods, they are more likely to eat it too.
- Serve food on small plates and bowls to prevent over-eating or wasting. Children can always ask for seconds if they are still hungry.
- Make small changes to meal combos. Improve the nutritional value of a meal by giving only small portions of unhealthy foods. Include vegetables and legumes in traditional favourites to increase the quality e.g. put lentils in bolognaise.
- Offer healthy, nutritious snacks. When children eat vegetables, plain yoghurt or nuts, they eat significantly fewer kilojoules to feel full than when snacking on crisps or sweets.
Eat more home-cooked foods
South African teens drink more than one soft drink each day on average; have a weekly sugar intake three times higher than recommended, and their salt intake from snack foods alone is higher than the overall recommendation.
The antidote is making time to cook wholesome fresh meals at home and switching soft drinks and fruit juice for plain water. Including the whole family in the process is critical to teach children kitchen skills, and to grow their understanding of what is healthy.
This fact was shown in a 2011 Canadian study. Higher involvement in preparing meals at home, using unprocessed ingredients, is instrumental to develop and maintain healthy eating behaviours in children.
Teaching children how to prepare simple, yet, healthy meals could help them develop a life skill into adulthood.