Do you live in a neighborhood where you aren’t comfortable having your child play outdoors unsupervised? These days, millions of parents feel this way. They’re convinced that it simply isn’t safe for their youngsters to be active outdoors, particularly on their own. And if parents are working during the day, it’s not surprising that they don’t want their youngsters spending time outside when they’re not home.

One of the best options for you to explore is whether there’s a formal after-school program in your neighborhood in which your child can participate that involves physical activity. For example, call the YMCA in your community, or the Boys & Girls Club. Enroll your child in a dance class to learn jazz or tap. Support your child in joining a youth bowling league. Be on the lookout for activities that are available in your community that include boys and girls.

Remember that participation is the key. Your child will be supervised while staying active, and you can pick him up on the way home from work. Keeping him busy after school is the key to making sure he stays away from the television set.

If your youngster is old enough to stay home by himself in the afternoons until you return from work, help him plan that time in advance. He doesn’t have to watch TV, play video games, or eat. In fact, there are many ways in which your child can stay active indoors.

Sit down with him and let him choose some after-school activities such as

  • Dancing to his favorite music on the CD player or tape deck
  • Jumping rope
  • Spending a few minutes with an exercise bike or treadmill (if you have either)
  • Doing some chores that you assign him—from cleaning up his room to emptying the dishwasher
  • Turning on a children’s exercise video and working out for 30 minutes

Many children are more likely to put an exercise video into the VCR or DVD player if siblings or parents can work out with them. They may simply find it more fun to participate in physical activity with someone else. So if your child has brothers or sisters, get them involved as much as possible.

What Does Your Child’s School Offer?

When you were in school, was physical education (PE)—or recess—your favorite “class”?

In many US schools, things have changed. Primarily because of budget cuts, PE programs have been sacrificed. Most states no longer mandate that their public schools offer PE. In some schools, PE classes are limited to once or twice a week, or they’ve been eliminated completely. Children are paying the price.

Physical activity is crucial to your child’s health and the management of his weight. If your youngster’s school district has reduced or eliminated PE programs, you need to let the district know that you want these classes back. Tell your child’s school principal. Write a letter to the members of the local school board. If you and other parents raise your voices, it might make a difference.

Physical Activity = Better Health

Pediatricians continue to be disturbed by the trends they’re seeing in the levels of physical activity of children, which appear to be headed in the wrong direction. One survey concluded that less than 25% of children in grades 4 through 12 participate in 20 minutes of vigorous activity or 30 minutes of any physical activity per day. Particularly with weight management as a goal, those numbers aren’t good enough.

Not only will regular physical activity help your child lose weight and maintain that weight loss, but it has many other benefits. For example, if your child exercises regularly, he’ll have

  • Stronger bones and joints
  • Greater muscle strength
  • A decrease in body fat
  • Improved flexibility
  • A healthier cardiovascular system (thus reducing his risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure)
  • A reduced likelihood of developing diabetes
  • More energy
  • A greater ability to handle stress
  • Improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Greater social acceptance by physically active peers
  • Opportunities to make new friends
  • Better concentration at school

Getting Started

You should have a clear picture of your child’s activity level—and whether he needs to change course. Is he watching too much TV? Is he spending too little time playing outdoors after school or on weekends?

As a parent, you need to help your overweight child get moving. To repeat, he should be doing some physical activity every day. In fact, it should become as routine a part of his life as brushing his teeth and sleeping.

So where should you begin? How much time does your child need to spend being active and how intense does this activity need to be?

The answers to these questions may be different for your child than it is for another boy or girl. If your overweight youngster has been completely sedentary, with no PE classes at school, no outdoor play, no extracurricular physical activities, and hours of TV watching every day, his starting point should be different than that of a fairly active youngster. There are plenty of activities that he can choose from, and he should begin to slowly and gradually pick up the pace.

Let’s say that your child decides to try getting his physical activity by taking walks or hikes with an older sibling through a nearby park. If he is really out of shape or if he has trouble imagining doing any walking at all, encourage him to set a goal of walking for only 1 minute at a time (“Can you walk for just 60 seconds?”). Once he realizes that 1 minute is an attainable target, have him increase his walking sessions progressively, to 2 minutes each time, then 3 minutes, and so on, until he’s walking for 30 minutes or more. If your youngster is already in better shape, he may want to start with a 15-minute walk and then increase it in 5-minute increments to 20 minutes, 25 minutes, and beyond. The ultimate goal is to have him spend an hour being active each day.

To most of us, a minute or two of walking doesn’t sound like much. In fact, many adolescents and adults think that exercise doesn’t really count unless it’s intense and even hurts (as the cliché goes, “No pain, no gain”). But for a child trying to lose weight, every little bit of activity helps, whether it’s a short walk to the school bus stop or a climb up a flight of stairs at school. Ultimately, once your child gets into better shape, you can encourage him to increase the duration and intensity of his activity, but the most important thing is that he just get moving and do it regularly.

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