Since February is American Heart Month, what better time to ensure you are guiding your family down a path of healthy living?
Most young children delight in being physically active, which makes childhood an ideal time to talk with them about the benefits of lifelong fitness and good nutrition. Helping children develop positive attitudes toward healthy lifestyles at an early age makes it more likely they will carry healthy-living habits with them into adulthood.
• Identify the types of physical activities your family enjoys. According to the document 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, children and adults should engage in physical activities for 60 minutes each day. This is especially important for young children and adolescents, to ensure they continue to build strong bones and muscles. Daily activities can include light-intensity (or “baseline”) activities such as standing and lifting light-weight objects, and high-intensity (or “health-enhancing”) activities such as jumping rope and dancing. The goal of each activity should be to improve bone health, flexibility, body composition (the percentage of fat, bone, and muscle), and cardiovascular and muscular fitness.
Work as a family to create a list of physical activities your family already enjoys doing together, such as hiking or gardening. Then brainstorm a list of new activities to try, such as bicycling or kicking a soccer ball in the park. As your family thinks of new activities, keep adding them to the list.
• Decide when your family will participate in physical activities together. After you have identified the activities your family enjoys, choose one or two activities to participate in each day. One simple activity families can do together, for example, is to take a walk after dinner. Walking is an excellent way to help digest a meal and strengthen muscles, and it provides an opportunity to share about each other’s day. List the activities on your family calendar and mark off each day’s activities together so everyone can look forward to the next day’s activities.
• Determine your family’s fitness goals and keep track of them. Consider setting fitness goals for your family. As with any type of exercise you begin, it is important to first consider the ages and current fitness levels of all participants. Then you can work toward increasing the intensity and duration of different activities. For example, during the first week, your family might take 30-minute walks each night after dinner, followed by dancing to your child’s favorite CD in the living room. The next week, increase the time spent walking and pick up the dancing pace a bit.
One way to track your family’s fitness goals is to write them down and put them on the refrigerator or in some other highly visible location. Review your goals periodically. After a goal has been met, set a new goal to work toward.
Remember: The most important goal is for all family members to participate in physical activities regularly, so it’s important that any goals you set are attainable and that everyone is motivated to work toward them.
• Talk about the importance of good nutrition and healthy eating habits. Children need adults to teach them about foods that are healthy for their bodies as well as to model eating healthy foods. Talking about good nutrition with children can be as simple as explaining the need to eat foods from different food groups to ensure their bodies receive the different vitamins and minerals needed to stay healthy.
As a family, create menus that include foods that are healthy and that everyone enjoys. Then, involve your child in the food-shopping process, including making a list and locating different foods in the store. For children who are reading, teach them how to read labels on foods too.
Maintaining Your Plan
Helping children understand the importance of regular exercise and eating nutritious foods will encourage them to maintain healthy lifestyles later on.
• Do get active! Remember to participate in some type of physical activity or activities for a total of at least 60 minutes each day. It’s not about exercising for long periods of time; it’s just about moving!
• Do have fun! Family members are much more likely to participate in physical activities that are fun, so make sure everyone enjoys the time spent together.
• Do eat healthy! Eat fewer foods that are high in fat and calories, and more foods that benefit the body, such as fruits and vegetables. Involve the entire family in selecting and preparing meals so everyone understands how to make healthy food choices.
One of the best things you can do for your children today is to help them develop the knowledge and lifestyle habits that will help them live happy and healthy lives tomorrow.
The best six doctors anywhere,
And no one can deny it,
Are sunshine, water, rest, and air,
Exercise and diet.
–Nursery rhyme quoted by Wayne Fields in his book What the River Knows.