Stay active -- a child's health begins at home Published April 9, 2007 By Kevin Huwe 36th Services Squadron ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- I remember as a child being sent outside to play in the mornings. I spent the day with my friends running around, riding bikes, climbing trees and only returned home for meals. I was always busy, always on the move; sugary snacks and drinks were a rare treat. That does not seem to be true for today's children. The world has become a busier place where people don't feel as safe. As a result, children have lost some of the freedom to be out on their own. Technology has also made it much more entertaining to stay indoors. Children substitute outdoor playtime for television, computers or video games. Sugary and fat-laden foods and beverages have, in many cases, become the norm rather than the exception. Studies show that one-third of American youth, about 25 million children, are already or nearly overweight. Children are overeating or under-exercising by about 110 to 165 calories a day which puts them at risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol and other health problems. An article published on the Mayo Clinic's website states: "In just two decades, the prevalence of overweight doubled for U.S. children ages 6 to 11, and tripled for American teenagers. The annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about one-third of U.S. children are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight." So as a parent, how do you know if your child is gaining a normal amount of weight as they grow? "Children, unlike adults, need extra nutrients and calories to fuel their growth and development," according to the Mayo Clinic article. "So if they consume about the number of calories they need for daily activities, growth and metabolism, they add pounds in proportion to their added inches. But children who eat more calories than they need gain weight beyond what's needed to support their growing frames. In these cases, the added weight increases their risk of obesity and weight-related health problems." It seems obvious to many, but is this really a problem to be concerned about as a parent. According to the Mayo Clinic article, it is! "Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start kids on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol." One of the best strategies to combat excess weight in your children is to improve the diet and exercise levels of your entire family. The Mayo Clinic article suggested that parents should "think of eating habits and exercise habits as two sides of the same coin: When you consider one, you also need to consider the other." Putting this into practice will help protect the health of your children now and in the future. Parents need to be concerned about this not only at home, but also at school, day care or any place where their children spend a significant amount of time and where they develop eating and physical activity habits that will last them a lifetime. So what is the way ahead? The Mayo Clinic article concluded with tips for establishing and maintaining a healthy family lifestyle; their tips included the following: Eat a healthy diet Parents are the ones who buy, cook and decide where the food is eaten. Even small changes can make a big difference in your child's health. * When buying groceries, choose fruits and vegetables over foods high in sugar and fat. Always have healthy snacks available. And never use food as a reward or punishment. * Limit sweetened beverages, including those containing fruit juice. These drinks provide little nutritional value in exchange for their high calories. They also can make your child feel too full to eat healthier foods. * Select recipes and methods of cooking that are lower in fat. For example, bake chicken instead of frying it. * Put colorful food on the table: green and yellow vegetables, fruits of various colors, and brown (whole-grain) breads. Limit white carbohydrates: rice, pasta, bleached bread and sugar (desserts). * Sit down together for family meals. Make it an event a time to share news and tell stories. Don't eat in front of the television or computer, which fosters mindless munching. * Limit the number of times you eat out, especially at fast-food restaurants. Many of the menu options are high in fat and calories. Increase physical activity A critical component of weight loss, especially for children, is physical activity. It not only burns calories, but also builds strong bones and muscles and helps children sleep well at night and stay alert during the day. Such habits established in childhood help adolescents maintain healthy weight despite the hormonal changes, rapid growth and social influences that often lead to overeating. And active children are more likely to become fit adults. To increase your child's activity level: * Limit recreational television time to fewer than two hours a day. Other sedentary activities playing video and computer games or talking on the phone - also should be limited. * Emphasize activity not exercise. Your child's activity doesn't have to be a structured exercise program -- the object is just to get him or her moving. Free-play activities such as playing hide-and-seek, tag or jump-rope can be great for burning calories and improving fitness. * Find activities your child likes to do. For instance, if your child is artistically inclined, go on a nature hike to collect leaves and rocks that your child can use to make a collage. If your child likes to climb, head for the nearest neighborhood jungle gym or climbing wall. If your child likes to read, then walk or bike to the neighborhood library for a book. If you want an active child, be active yourself. Take the stairs instead of the elevator and park the car farther away from stores. Never make exercise seem a punishment or a chore. Find fun activities that the whole family can do together. Make chores a family affair. Who can pull the most weeds out of the vegetable garden? Who can collect the most litter? Have your kids help shovel the snow off the driveway and use that excess snow to build a snow fort. Vary the activities. Let each child take a turn choosing the activity of the day or week. Batting practice, bowling and swimming all count. What matters is that you're doing something active. Make a family commitment. Children can't change their exercise and eating habits by themselves, they need the support and encouragement of their family and other caregivers. The Air Force, through its Services Family Member Programs, is committed to the well-being of our youth. FitFactor, the new Air Force wide Youth Fitness and Health program which kicked off in October 2005, is a web-based program that encourages children ages 6 to 18 to Get Up, Get Out and Get Fit! Youth can sign up at the youth center, teen center or the school-age program, then go to www.AFgetfit.com and log up to 100 points each day. Points can be earned in a variety of ways -- from eating healthy to participating in team sports to household chores. These FitFactor points enable participants to achieve six FitFactor levels; for each level they receive fun prizes. In addition to the prizes awarded for points earned, there will also be monthly FitFactor bonus prize drawings. A healthy lifestyle, to include healthy eating and an active lifestyle will not necessarily come easily. It will, however, pay huge dividends not only for yourself, but for your entire family. Air Force Services "FitFactor" program is just one more tool to help make your family healthy for life! Editor's note: Lori Propes, also from the 36 SVS, contributed to this article.