As an aunt, uncle, parent, or grandparent of a young child or adolescent, we can help develop good diet, fitness, and overall healthy habits in our children that will provide them with lifelong benefits. In most families this responsibility falls primarily to the parents; however, every family member can be a positive role model, encourage frequent physical activity, and participate in the current and future health of a child.
How much exercise children should receive
While the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA) recommends each adult receive 30 minutes minimum of moderate intensity activity most days, or preferably every day, in addition to your usual daily activities, the USDA recommends children and teenagers should be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day. In its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds that the 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity for children and adolescents should be a combination of aerobic activity, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening activities, as follows:
- Aerobic activity: Aerobic activity should make up most of your child’s 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day. This can include either moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or vigorous-intensity activity, such as running. Be sure to include vigorous-intensity aerobic activity on at least 3 days per week.
- Muscle Strengthening: Include muscle strengthening activities, such as gymnastics or push-ups, at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes.
- Bone Strengthening: Include bone strengthening activities, such as jumping rope or running, at least 3 days per week as part of your child’s 60 or more minutes.
Everyday physical activities
There are dozens of physical activities that children can do on their own, with each other, or as part of an organized group. These activities include: walking, running, bike riding, hiking, jumping rope, playing tag, martial arts, baseball, basketball, skateboarding, swimming, tennis, skating, tree climbing, gymnastics, cheerleading, dancing, hopscotch, and soccer.
Because each child is unique, it is important to experiment, encourage, and try to find physical activities and sports he or she will enjoy. If a child really loves bike riding, swimming, or hiking, for example, they will be much more likely to continue with it through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.
Healthy, active parents rear healthy, active kids. Therefore, participation in exercise and physical activity by parents and family members is also very important in order to role model healthy behaviors and further encourage everyday exercise in children. Everyone will also benefit from the quality time spent together.
Family exercise can be as simple as playing catch in the backyard, helping clean the house, or talking a walk around the neighborhood, but there are also other more committed ways for families to be active and exercise together. These activities include:
- Buy bicycles for everyone and plan frequent family bike rides.
- Spend a weekend afternoon at the local park playing soccer, kickball, or any variety of team sport.
- Go on a family vacation that includes lots of walking, hiking, biking, or swimming.
- Join the community recreation center or YMCA as a family.
- Visit local attractions, museums, or zoos where extensive walking is required.
- Sign up for golf, martial arts, tennis, or swimming lessons together.
- Participate in a family-friendly walking, biking, or running event. Many worthy charities often sponsor such events.
- Put up a basketball goal or volleyball net at home and play together regularly.
For anyone over 2 years of age, the USDA describes a healthy diet as one that:
- Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products.
- Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts.
- Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.
These recommendations are provided to help both children and adults make smart choices about what foods they eat, get the most nutrition out of calories, and stay within daily calorie needs. And as with physical activity, children rely on the adults in their lives to role model and teach healthy eating habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Even more family participation
In addition to serving healthy family meals which follow the USDA dietary guidelines, there are many other ways to encourage healthy eating habits and discourage poor eating habits. There habits include:
- Continuously exposure children to a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and other healthy options.
- Go food shopping together and teach children to read food labels.
- Avoid fast food restaurants.
- Eat together as a family as often as possible.
- Prepare meals together and teach children to cook with healthy ingredients.
- Choose foods and beverages that do not have sugar or artificial sweeteners as one of the first ingredients or have extra sugars added.
- Don’t offer sweets, desserts, or any food as a reward for good behavior.
- Teach children to wash their hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.
Parents are the most important influences on a child. As a parent or other family member, you can do many things to help children develop healthy habits for life. So, stay involved, be a good role model, play together, exercise together, cook together, eat together, talk together, and help a happy, healthy child grow up to be a happy, healthy adult.