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Turn your kids from couch potatoes into active kids this summer

July 13, 2015

After hopefully working hard all year in school, kids are ready for some rest and relaxation. And that’s okay, as long as they don’t become couch potatoes.

Importance of staying active

“Studies have shown that lack of physical activity is an independent predictor of a child’s increasing body mass index and may even be more important than overeating, but it’s often the hardest to think about and address in terms of obesity,” said Dr. Chrystal Wittcopp, a pediatrician at Baystate Children’s Hospital who oversees their Pediatric Weight Management Program. 

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean strenuous exercise such as spending time on the treadmill, or limiting activity to just one hour each day.

“Today’s current culture does not promote an active lifestyle. We tend to use our cars for even very short trips when we could have easily walked somewhere on our own. We pay at the gas pump with our credit card instead of going to the service window and use ATM machines as opposed to going into the bank. Then there’s remote controls for the television just to save us a few short steps,” Dr. Wittcopp said.

Summer fun

Summer is a great time to instill body-healthy habits in your children. Encourage them to get up off the couch and go outside to play. Better yet, go with them and make exercise a fun family activity. Summer also offers a great opportunity for family trips to the local farm stand or produce department to get some fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables.

“We know that kids actually gain weight during the summer. While the warmer months bring a lot of free time to engage in more physical activity, within that free time there is also plenty of unstructured time, which may mean lots of extra eating for some,” said Kara Miller, MIGHTY Fitness Coordinator in the Pediatric Weight Management Program.

Miller offers the following suggestions to help kids keep active this summer:

  • Water! Pools, beaches, boating, kayaking, water games, water parks.
  • Make use of public parks/trails/tracks for walking, biking, or hiking.
  • Sports – organized or just pickup games. Baseball/softball, basketball, soccer, ultimate frisbee.
  • Make physical activity a part of your family gatherings. Lots of birthdays and barbecues during these warm weather months, so open up the pool, set up for volleyball, badminton, basketball, or kickball. Take a walk around the neighborhood after eating. Turn up the music and make dancing be part of the festivities.
  • Find somewhere with air conditioning and be cool and active indoors, too. Consider going to the gym, roller skating, or trampoline parks.
  • Help your child to create an at-home workout. Find workout videos, cable "on demand" may offer some workouts, check YouTube, or create one of your own.
  • Introduce your child to the wonders of gardening or helping with yard work.
  • Be active as a family as a way to start the day or to end it, such as biking, walking, or running together. Tip: it may be a little bit cooler earlier in the morning or after dinner when the sun is lower.
  • Turn off the television and computer! Kids can't be in front of them if they are not on. Reading and sleeping both burn more calories than watching television. If you are a working parent and feel like you can't control what goes on while you aren't home, have television free time in the evenings, such as between 5-7 p.m. or 6-8 p.m.

“Of course, safety is a must. For example, be safe in the water, use sunscreen, stay hydrated, wear lightweight clothing, and don’t forget your helmet. If you child is being active around where people are driving, be sure they wear colors that can be easily seen, especially in the dark,” Miller said.

Advice for working parents

So, what’s a parent to do when they go off to work leaving children old enough to be left home alone? How can you be sure they aren’t spending the entire day just lounging around.

According to Miller, if they are old enough to be left home alone, that means they are also old enough to clean the house and maybe prep dinner.

“Leave a ‘to do’ list that includes chores and meal prep. I like the meal prep part because if they're helping prepare dinner, they may be more likely to want to eat it. They can prep the veggies, season the meats, measure ingredients, or even assemble the dish,” Miller said.

However, simply because they are old enough to stay home alone, doesn't mean older children have to.

“If they have friends or family you trust them to be with, let them spend time together, in the house or out of the house. Libraries are open, but maybe hanging out at the mall is more realistic. There are summer camps and other activities for teens. Gyms are open and some facilities, like the YMCA, have teen memberships for a reasonable price,” said Miller. “Once again, safety is a must. So only allow or encourage what you are comfortable with them doing, which may mean having a conversation about safety and expectations first.”

Health benefits

Physical activity is important year round, not just during the summer, noted the fitness expert.

“There are obvious health and fitness benefits to being active, but being active also boosts confidence and improves social skills,” Miller said.

In addition to promoting a healthy weight and improving cardiovascular fitness, exercise has also been shown to relieve depression, which is a side effect of obesity, and it also relieves stress.

“The big key to keeping your youngster physically active is finding them an activity they will enjoy enough to continue to do on their own. And it may take some experimentation and trying several things before you find the right activity, but it will be worth the effort,” Dr. Wittcopp said.

About the Pediatric Weight Management Program

The Baystate Children's Hospital Pediatric Weight Management Program is a multi-disciplinary program serving children age 2-21 years with a diagnosis of obesity ( BMI > 95% for age). The program offers children and families resources aimed at promoting healthy nutrition, healthy activity and a healthy lifestyle. Services include:

  • Complete medical evaluation and treatment by pediatricians that specialize in childhood obesity
  • Evaluation and treatment by registered dietician
  • Referral (if needed) to psychologists who specialize in childhood obesity
  • Enrollment in MIGHTY (moving, improving, and gaining health together at the YMCA)

MIGHTY is a 6-month-long group program with strong emphasis placed on physical activity, nutrition and behavioral change for the entire family. It includes a fitness evaluation, individual fitness prescriptions, group exercise sessions, individual and group nutritional counseling and strategies for lifelong behavior change. Families who participate in MIGHTY also receive a free 6-month long membership to the Springfield-based YMCA. In order for a child to be enrolled in MIGHTY, they must first be evaluated at the Pediatric Weight Management Program.

For a free referral to a doctor on staff in the Pediatric Weight Management Program, call Baystate Health Link at 1-800-377-HEALTH.