For most students, the demands of school take up a lot of their time. Homework assignments. Required reading. Quizzes. Tests. Projects.
Fitness shouldn’t take a back seat to schoolwork, however. Children who are fit, active, and healthy often have an easier time concentrating in school, experts say. Still, it’s hard to carve out time for exercise when juggling academics, extracurricular activities, social schedules, and family time.
Parents can help their kids stay physically as well as mentally active by creating opportunities, incorporating a healthy diet into daily life, and imparting a positive attitude.
It’s up to Mom and Dad to make sure kids have opportunities for fitness. Some children play on sports teams, giving them a safe and structured outlet for exercise. But for many kids, physical activity doesn’t come naturally. That’s when parents need to step in.
“Get the child engaged in what they like,” says Beth Passehl, coordinator of the Fit Kids program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which helps families adopt healthier lifestyles.
She suggests parents find time to take a walk with their children. Walking is the most popular form of exercise among adults, and kids can learn to love it, too. Perhaps you can squeeze in a short walk before school, or after dinner before it gets too dark.
Maybe your daughter likes rollerblading or riding her bike. If your son likes swimming, look for an indoor pool where he can do laps.
Restrict time sitting in front of the television, playing video games, or noodling around on the computer. When your child watches a favorite TV program, challenge her to run up and down the stairs during commercials. Parents can join in, too. “Kids find that fun and interesting because it’s different to do,” Passehl says.
Parents can brainstorm with their kids to come up with ways of exercising indoors. Invent active fun using cards and board games: While playing Go Fish, for example, when you’re told to “go fish” you also have to do 20 jumping jacks. Play music to make exercising indoors more energizing and fun.
Make the weekend a time for fitness. If the weather is good, go for a hike. If the weather is bad, gather the family and head for the roller-skating rink. Let your kids bring friends so they don’t miss out on socializing, but don’t accept a lot of excuses. Stay on top of schoolwork during the week so you don’t have to spend the whole weekend catching up.
In addition to making sure children have opportunities to exercise, parents should provide healthy snacks, especially for kids who come home to an empty house after school. “Snacks are essential,” says Ruth Bell, coordinator of a diabetes prevention program at Children’s Healthcare. She recommends three meals a day (including breakfast), plus two healthy snacks.
“People think snacks are empty calories, but they are really mini meals,” Bell says. She suggests that parents place labeled snacks on the counter or in a plastic bag in the fridge so their children won’t have to poke around the cupboards.
Educate your kids about calories. Teach them that they can still have high-calorie treats in smaller portions. If they want to eat a lot, it’s best to choose lower-calorie foods. “If you completely eliminate any kind of food, the child is going to want it and crave it,” Bell says.
Making exercise fun may be the most important thing a parent can do to keep a child fit and active. Don’t get into a power struggle. Don’t make demands. You want your child to be self-motivated, Bell and Passehl both say.
Keep in mind that a child’s weight will fluctuate, especially during puberty. Don’t focus on the number on the scale, and don’t put your child on a commercial diet not approved for kids. Instead, work with your pediatrician to determine a plan of action if you think your child is overweight.
Don’t make comments, good or bad, about your child’s size. Encourage everyone in the family, thin or heavy, to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Live by example. Show your child that you manage to find time and energy to exercise because it’s important for your health. Be a role model for your child. Your positive attitude will create an atmosphere of peace and trust in your home. “Health is a bigger issue,” says Passehl, “than just eating and exercising.”