In a culture that upholds thinness as an ideal of physical beauty, it’s ironic that nearly two-thirds of adults and one in five kids are not thin. Not only can the struggle with weight affect one’s self-esteem, but it also poses a variety of health concerns.
The number of overweight children has more than tripled since 1980—an alarming statistic. But what do you do if you suspect your child is too heavy? A healthy lifestyle is more complex than simply eating less and exercising more; and the path to a fit family starts with the parents.
Looking to change
“The frustrating thing about obesity is that people have to want to help,” says Dr. Greg Moyer of Lake Country Physicians. The good news is that health initiatives are popping up everywhere from the White House to the YMCA.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign brought the problem of childhood obesity into the limelight, and the National Institutes of Health developed a program to enhance children’s activity and nutrition, known as We Can!
Both Fit Kids…Fit Families and We Can! aim to educate families and change their lifestyles for the better.
By the numbers
Determining a healthy weight involves more than just stepping on the scale. Unlike adults, kids’ bodies are still growing, so using weight as a measure of health is inaccurate.
Instead, a person’s body mass index, or BMI, relates a person’s height to his weight by way of a mathematical formula. The resulting number classifies adult males and females as underweight, healthy, overweight or obese.
The meaning of a child’s BMI, however, depends on her age. “BMI is useful to follow over time, but an isolated incident is not helpful without looking at bone structure,” cautions Dr. Moyer. Gaining a healthy lifestyle starts with countless daily choices made with an eye toward a long-term goal. “The emphasis needs to be on eating well and being healthy, not on weight,” he says.
Making a plan
Mary Kurkiewicz, RN, has been teaching Fit Kids…Fit Families for nearly four years. “We have a well-rounded program with a strong behavioral component. We do not emphasize weight loss but rather promote healthy eating behaviors,” she says.
The program addresses nutrition, exercise and behavior, helping families to shake unhealthy habits. Classes are held at several local YMCAs—“an atmosphere that motivates families to exercise,” Kurkiewicz adds.
The program follows principles from Ellyn Satter’s book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. One central tenet is that when it comes to meals and snacks, parents have the power to control what is available and kids decide how much they want to eat.
“We really focus on educating the parents … they model healthy behavior,” says Kurkiewicz. Stocking healthy food in the pantry and refrigerator empowers kids to make good choices on their own. “If a kid gorges on a certain sugar snack, maybe the parent chooses not to buy it for awhile,” she says.
Participants also talk about feelings that can lead to emotional eating and learn to recognize when they’re hungry or full. Meal planning is key to success. “Parents should know at the beginning of the day what they’ll be serving at the end of the day,” says Kurkiewicz.
As for picky eaters, kids are challenged to try new foods and report their experiences back to the class. Replacing harmful habits with healthy ones requires due diligence from all family members.
Jennifer Plautz of Oconomowoc knew her daughter, Stephanie, 10, was becoming self-conscious about her weight. Knee surgery had kept Stephanie off of her feet, and even though the middle schooler’s injury had recovered, she hesitated to jump back into sports. Jennifer knew she could eat better and exercise more, too.
The family signed up for Fit Kids…Fit Families to get everyone educated and motivated. “I thought it would be helpful for Stephanie to hear the things her father and I tell her from somebody else—to get her exercising more,” says Jennifer. She also wanted to show her daughter that other kids are in the same situation.
“Now, Stephanie goes for protein, like turkey slices, to fill her up instead of chips or popcorn,” says Jennifer. “And when we do buy popcorn, it has less butter on it—because every little bit helps.”
As for exercise, Jennifer has taken to walking on the track at the YMCA, and Stephanie is dancing at play rehearsal three times a week. They encourage each other.
Support and supper
“Health is also about healthy relationships,” says Tammy Gallow, a nurse and dietitian in Oconomowoc who teaches an adult nutrition component of the eight-week We Can! program.
Participants are encouraged to eat fresh foods rather than processed food products, exercise daily and reduce screen time—television, computers and video games—to less than two hours per day.
“When it comes to vegetables and exercise, it’s hard to overdo it,” says Gallow.
She teaches adults to look for a clean ingredient list—one that is short and contains items they recognize as food—and to eat foods that pack a nutritional punch. “The good news is that we can enjoy whole, real, unprocessed foods,” Gallow says.
“If you look at your calories like dollar bills, you want to get the most bang for your buck—you want the most nutritional payback of vitamins and minerals.” Instead of counting calories, people should eat a rainbow’s variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy and protein.
Educating kids about nutrition by the time they reach middle school is crucial. “If mom and dad are eating junk foods for meals, the kids will see that. What we’re hoping for is to have the family change together,” says Jean Pirkey, RN, who teaches nutrition to kids in the program.
Whether kids are picking out lunch at school or spending their allowance while out with friends, “they need to know how to read labels and make good choices on their own,” says Pirkey.
At the same time, the program stresses the importance of family meals, where family members gain more than physical nourishment. “Enjoying good, real, wholesome, nutritious food shows that we value our bodies, our health, and our family so much that we’ll spend time together as a family preparing and enjoying food together,” adds Gallow.
Eating well is only half the formula; sweat is required. Families are encouraged to play together to reach their daily exercise goals. “Parents need to lead by example in their faith and their lifestyle,” says Jill Neils, a certified personal trainer who leads the exercise component of We Can!
Neils believes that fitness should be a family affair, and there’s no reason it can’t be fun. Each week she introduces a topic, such as agility, flexibility or strength, and games to continue playing at home. Playing hockey with beach balls and pool noodles, relay races with jumping jacks, hula hoops and more, and even dodge ball, are all ideas to get families moving.
The key is to stay active outside the program. Making time for exercise in an already hectic schedule can be difficult, but the good news is the recommended half hour of exercise doesn’t need to be continuous. For adults, it could be lifting weights in the morning, walking the dog at lunch, and playing tag after school with the kids.
“Team sports like basketball and volleyball build family camaraderie, which can be an added bonus during the trying adolescent years,” says Kurkiewicz. The benefits of a becoming a fit family don’t start and end on the scale.
This story originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.
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