The weight struggle in the U.S. is real, and it starts early. One in five kids heading back to school this September is obese, and one in three are overweight. Most kids come by their extra pounds honestly. Less than three percent of Americans meet the qualifications for a “healthy lifestyle,” which includes regular exercise, eating healthy, a low body fat percentage and not smoking. This helps explain why 70 percent of adults are overweight and, sadly, how we are raising the next generation to follow in their footsteps.
Still, navigating the physical and emotional implications that come with being overweight when you’re young can be particularly devastating. For parents, back to school season only heightens the anxiety they feel about raising an overweight child.
Their concern is warranted. Overweight kids are more frequently teased and bullied and more likely to experience social isolation, low self-esteem and depression. As if the societal pressures to be thin and healthy aren’t enough, these same kids also face a lifetime of health problems that for right now are only bubbling beneath the surface, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders and certain types of cancer. Research tells us that more than half of the kids in school today will be obese by the time they are 35, and parents are desperately searching for ways to prove this unsettling statistic wrong.
Thankfully, obesity is largely preventable, and the same strategies to help kids manage weight struggles also work for adults. In recognition of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, here are the five basic strategies that I share to help families get their weight back on track together. A new school year and a new schedule are all perfect motivators to adopt a healthier life, and it’s never too early, or too late, to get started.
- Make sleep a priority. Those who don’t get enough sleep tend to weigh more, no matter how old they are. Sleep helps regulate your appetite and restores energy to be productive each day. People who spend too much time awake have more hours to eat, and burn less calories while they’re awake, so make sure your house gets the recommended shut-eye to function well and keep off extra pounds in the process.
- Eat for fuel. Lean meats, fruits and veggies in age-appropriate portion sizes provide the right amount of energy without excess fat and calories. Avoid common pitfalls like sugary drinks, fast food and easy-to-grab packaged snacks, and instead opt for a bunch of grapes or handful of carrots on the go.
- Eat together. Kids who eat just one or two family meals a week are 45 percent less likely to be overweight as adults, which is a significant return on the time investment that goes into coordinating a family dinner. Meals don’t have to be elaborate, but they should nurture healthy eating habits and a family connection, which has also shown to combat depression and even help reduce the likelihood that your teens will engage in high-risk activities.
- Stay active. Lots of people think of exercise as a punishment, but games and adventures can result in the same benefits. Go for a walk after dinner, have a family dance party, play a game of tag or ride bikes to a friend’s house to help burn calories and adopt a more active everyday existence. Shoot for at least 60 minutes each day, which is easy if it doubles as play time.
- Power off. Time spent staring at a blue screen takes away from time spent being active or sleeping. A little bit of downtime is necessary, but once homework is done and the last work emails are sent, power down to give your body a boost. If you’re struggling with how much is too much, follow age-appropriate recommendations, and remember that your own screen habits set the tone for the family, so practice what you preach.
Most people know that being overweight isn’t healthy, but many don’t realize just how unhealthy it is. When I tell parents that obesity results in 47 percent more loss of life years than tobacco – a known and widely accepted killer – most are terrified, but that doesn’t have to be your child’s story. Making simple life changes can make a difference in your family’s health, and September is the perfect month to get started.