Recently, the states of California and New York reported declining child obesity rates for the first time in years.
However, despite the great progress, the fact remains: There are plenty of kids struggling to maintain a healthy weight throughout our country.
As parents, it’s our job not only to teach our kids to balance nourishment and exercise, but also help them get back on track when the scales tip unfavorably. And if that’s not daunting enough, experts say the way we handle the topic and messages we send about self-image can be carried throughout a child’s life.
WHAT CONSTITUTES A WEIGHT PROBLEM?
Many factors that impact a child’s growth – including heredity, body type and metabolism – are completely out of his or her control. For the most part, a little weight gain in an otherwise healthy child is nothing to be concerned about. Lots of kids simply go through a “chubby” phase, typically around middle school years, as part of normal development. Unfortunately, waif-like icons on television and in magazines often distort perception of ideal weight in perfectly “average” adolescents. So to objectively monitor a child’s growth, pediatricians use the Body Mass Index (BMI), a formula involving height and weight, to screen for obesity starting at age two. A BMI number above the 85th percentile is considered overweight, suggesting lifestyle changes are needed to ensure a healthier future.
Specialists say even well-meaning suggestions about weight to an already self-conscious teen can be easily misinterpreted. “The pre-teen and teenage years are when kids are figuring out their identities and self-worth and they are already so, so tough on themselves,” explains Roseville-based Family Therapist Amanda Medina, LMFT. “The last thing they need is to feel criticized by their parents about their weight.” Rather than address actual weight, she counsels parents to encourage a healthier lifestyle, ideally including the whole family. But first, Medina says, send them a message of unconditional love and acceptance. “The quickest way to drive your child to make poor choices is to make your love contingent on those choices.”
THE MORE ACTIVITIES THE BETTER
Sharon Thompson, a certified personal trainer at Folsom Fitness Center, agrees parents should advocate overall health and fitness, not zone in on weight. “I don’t believe in having kids weigh in,” she says. “Focusing on a number on the scale is not the right thing to do for younger kids and teens.” Instead, she emphasizes getting at-risk children active at least one hour each day. Thompson, who holds a specialty certificate in youth fitness, likes using fitness-based technology for motivation. “Kids are so tech savvy and into tactile gadgets,” she says. “So I recommend things like the bodybugg (bodybugg.com), the Biggest Loser SLIMCOACH (biggestloserslimcoach.com) or a simple pedometer. These devices allow kids to track their progress and stay active via interactive tools.” And there’s no gym membership required. “The park can be turned into a great conditioning tool,” says Thompson. “Think of everything differently. Run up slides, try reverse crunches on monkey bars and do push-ups off the steps.” Indoors, Wii and Xbox activities like boxing and dancing can be effective. “Anything that gets their heart rate up and keeps it up for at least 30 minutes is great.”
BE A ROLE MODEL
Both Medina and Thompson stress the best way for parents to “communicate” with their children is to lead by example. Modeling a healthy lifestyle and a positive body image are nonverbal messages that kids can easily understand.