Childhood obesity levels have more than tripled in the last 30 years, making a healthy diet and exercise crucial. To help better understand the cause of this growing epidemic, Alison Pittman, M.S.N., RN, CPN, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing, shares a few lifestyle-based solutions that can have an impact well past childhood.

“The growing obesity epidemic of American children and the potential consequences of inactivity are well outlined in current research,” Pittman says. “What is harder to determine is why, despite the efforts of educational programs that encourage physical activity, some children choose not to participate in physical exercise as they grow into their middle school years.”

“But despite this trend, making just a few lifestyle changes can help our children lead healthier lives,” notes Pittman.

Pittman suggests that all parents begin implementing healthier ways of living now, with the following diet and exercise tips.

Pack a healthy lunch

Packing a healthy lunch is a great way to provide children with the proper nutrition they need to perform well in school. Unfortunately, lunch boxes are often crammed with prepackaged foods full of calories, sugar and sodium. This excess can leave kids feeling lethargic and unmotivated by mid-afternoon and ultimately contributes to long-term health problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

When packing a lunch, one of the easiest ways to stay healthy is to follow the MyPlate guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. MyPlate can serve as a guide for packing lunches that taste good and provide the energy and nutrients children need to excel during the school day.

  • Make half of your child’s lunch consist of fruits and vegetables. Kids love to “dip” foods, so try providing a small container of dip such as ranch dressing, peanut butter or hummus.
  • Make sure half the grains in your child’s diet are whole grains. This is becoming easier as more whole-grain breads, crackers, bagels and even pretzels show up on store shelves. Try brown rice instead of white rice, or whole grain noodles instead of traditional pasta.
  • Pack water or low-fat, unflavored milk instead of sugary sodas and juice drinks. Pack a water bottle with lots of ice in his/her lunch box so it will still be cool at lunchtime. If you do provide juice, make sure it is 100 percent fruit juice and limit to eight to 12 ounces per day for the school-age child (four to six ounces for preschoolers).

For more information, including helpful posters for the fridge, sample lunch and snack ideas, and other tips, visit MyPlate.

Increase activity as a family

Today, children experience a very different lifestyle than previous generations. According to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, eight to 18-year old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including, TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies. Gone are the days of spending time in the great outdoors, and engaging in physical activity together, as a family. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. Pittman recommends following suggestions from Let’s Move!, an initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, dedicated to encouraging children to begin healthy lifestyles in the early years.

Let’s Move! suggests the following family activities to instill a love for exercise in your children:

  • Select activities that are easy to do anywhere, such as walking, jogging, jumping rope or aerobics.
  • Bike to the library together.
  • Dance or move during commercial breaks – that’s usually 15 minutes in a one-hour television show.
  • Go up hills instead of around them.
  • Take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator.
  • Celebrate special occasions – birthdays, anniversaries – with something active, such as a hike, volleyball game or frisbee match.
  • Train together for a charity walk or run.
  • Park further away. Count the steps with your children it takes from the car to the destination. Write it down. See if you can park even further away on your next stop.
  • Walk or bike to your children’s sports events to cheer for them. You can pace the sidelines while they play.
  • Take a family walk after dinner.
  • Replace a Sunday drive with a Sunday walk.
  • Go for a half-hour walk instead of watching TV.

For more information on the initiative, visit the Let’s Move website.

“Everyone has a role to play in reducing childhood obesity,” says Pittman. “Involvement in your child’s well-being is key to ensuring a healthy future for the next generation.”

— Holly Shive

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