Sedentary and Overweight Kids? 10 tips to turn things around – Part I: Physical Activity

The childhood obesity epidemic worsens every year and is rapidly emerging as an international crisis. On many levels the obesity crisis is overwhelmingly complex, but from the point of view of any given overweight child, the solution really is as simple as making two lifestyle changes: eating more healthfully and doing more physical activity. Every overweight or obese child can return to health by making modest changes to these two lifestyle components. The key, when implementing lifestyle changes for kids, is to focus on them feeling (not looking) good, having fun, improving their health, and boosting their self-esteem. Avoid focusing on weight-loss, strict calorie counts, or ‘looking better’.

Part I: Physical Activity

Humans will naturally eat more calories than their bodies consume at rest. In other words, a sedentary person who eats exactly what his/her body demands will, more often than not, ultimately gain weight. It is for this very reason that most people cannot achieve a reasonable level of health without being active. Another way of putting it: your body demands food based on the assumption that you will be doing a reasonable amount of physical activity daily. This means that to maintain a reasonable body composition, one can either resist the body’s powerful hunger signals all day, every day, and indefinitely … or add some physical activity into one’s daily life. Easier said than done? Maybe, but here are 5 tips to help get your kids out there and exercising more.

1. Start Low and go Slow

Canada Health recommends that children do at least one hour of exercise per day. For a sedentary kid whose idea of exercise is walking to the fridge for more ice cream, this recommendation can seem daunting making him unlikely to bother trying. Keep in mind that any activity is infinitely better than no activity at all. A 5-minute daily walk is 5 minutes more than no walk at all. Adding one minute per week to that daily walk – an imperceptible increase to the child – means that 6 months later, the 5-minute walk becomes a 30-minute walk!. There’s no rush, and the more gradual the approach, the more likely the activity will become established in the child’s daily routine.

2. Decreased sedentary activity = Increased “active” activity

With the exception of sleeping, the most sedentary activity I can think of is watching television. In fact, sitting in a couch staring at a blank TV screen consumes energy more efficiently than sitting on the same couch with the television on. There’s something about the act of watching the television that actually slows down the body’s metabolism. Amazingly, just the act of turning off the TV will make your kids more active. But keep in mind, too, that kids will quickly get bored staring at a blank TV and will inevitably choose more active alternate activities. So jump on many opportunities to unplug the TV and encourage the kids to find more active, imaginative and healthy activities to enjoy.

3. Children do what they see you do, not what you tell them to do

Telling a child to do more exercise almost never works. It must be role-modelled. Sedentary families are more likely to raise sedentary children. Active families tend to raise active children. If you want your kids to get out and exercise, do it yourselves … do it together! Go for a nature walk. Take the kids out for a bike ride. Walk them to school. Make it a daily routine. If you’re doing it every day, they’ll want to join in on the fun.

4. Load-bearing exercises are important too.

Obesity is not only a problem of too much unhealthy eating and not enough exercise. A third important consideration is how efficiently the body consumes (or metabolizes) energy. Muscle consumes calories far more efficiently than fat. The more metabolically active the body (i.e. composed of more muscle relative to fat), the more energy it will require on a daily basis to maintain a given weight. We all know people like this; they are the ones who eat immense amounts of food and never seem to gain any weight. The less metabolically active the body (i.e. composed of less muscle relative to fat), the less energy it requires on a daily basis to maintain a given weight. These are the people who seem to gain weight despite constantly limiting and restricting their caloric intake. As you have probably figure out, a healthier body has a higher amount of muscle relative to fat. Load-bearing activity increases the muscle component of ones body. As a consequence, the muscle component increases and the fat component decreases. This results in more efficient energy consumption, and a healthier body.

I can think of many examples of load-bearing activities: Push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, climbing on the jungle-gym, rock/wall climbing, wheelbarrow racing, tug-of-war, portaging a canoe, hiking with a heavy back-pack, biking up a steep hill, etc.

5. Capitalize on every opportunity to ‘do it the active way’.

Choose to take the stairs, not the elevator. Try walking your kids to school. If school is too far and requires a drive, consider parking the car a few blocks before and walk the last little bit. If video games are part of the household routine, pick active video games for active game consoles like “Dance Dance Revolution”, “Wii Fit”, or “Microsoft Kinnect”. Choose going to the park for an hour after dinner instead of watching TV. Each little bit adds up to more activity, fitter bodies, and ultimately healthier happier children.

I would love to hear your thoughts/feedback on the above recommendations. What other strategies have worked for you?

Coming soon… Sedentary Overweight Kids? 10 tips to turn things around – PART II: Healthy Eating