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Have you heard... good (and bad) habits start young.

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 9:45am
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7 months ago
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Have you heard…good (and bad) habits start young.

I’m always amazed when I see a young person smoking. Why they would choose to begin an addictive habit that is sure to kill them early is beyond my understanding. And yet, the few times I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this puzzlement with said young adults, the answer is often similar, “I don’t know, my family smokes, so I guess it just seems normal.”

Normal…when you look it up in the dictionary, the common description is “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” So it is reasonable to expect that what we do in front of our children is their interpretation of the norm. The American essayist James Baldwin stated, and wisely so, that “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to emulate them.” If so, then how do we as parents help to ensure our children have the longest, healthiest lives possible? We can surely start by setting a good example.

Childhood obesity is not a new development. America has been watching our obesity levels rise, engulf our young, and cause past Surgeon General Richard Carmona to state that “the generation of young people growing up now may be the first in history to have shorter lifespans than their parents.” And yet, many continue to point the finger at others. It’s the school’s fault for decreasing PE and playtime; it’s the fast food restaurant's fault for serving unhealthy meals, and on, and on, and on.

I submit that we are the “captains of our family ship,” and therefore it is up to us to set the standard on what should be “normal” behavior. When your family comes home from work/school/daycare, do you all sit in front of a screen or do you go out for a walk or a bike ride? Do you toss a ball in the yard, or go play in the park? When you are tired after a long day, do you go home and mix up a healthy salad, or fruit, or a “real” meal, or do you heat up a preservative laden frozen junk meal, or hit the drive through for burgers and fries? Whatever your answer, remember, your family is watching. And you are setting the bar for the “norm” that they will take with them as they grow, and serve to the next generation of children as they become parents.

So how do we go about solving the issue? I may not have the answer, but I do know it’s in our hands. The choices we make inform the lives of our children, so while it may be difficult to slam the brakes on what has become the “norm” to us, we must start changing the unhealthy food, habits, screen time, and disconnection that is adversely affecting us all. Here are some suggestions.

Throw a block party. This doesn’t have to be anything formal, simply send an invitation to all of your neighbors to meet at a predetermined neighborhood location, bring their families, an idea for an active game, and their favorite healthy dish. To make even more of an impact, ask them to bring copies of the recipe (one for each family invited) so each family can have a collection of healthy recipes to take home and share. This is a great way to get to know your neighbors, start a healthy movement, develop a support network of people with like-minded goals, and best of all, stay away from a screen!

Spend a day at the park. When was the last time you went to the park? (Not just a drive through!) Pack a healthy lunch, sunscreen, a Frisbee, the family, bring lots of water to stay hydrated, and make a day of it! Visit the playground and play with your child, don’t just sit and watch. This doesn’t mean you have to run and slide, but do participate. One game that is fun, especially for younger kids, is high-low hide and seek. Stand under a deck, count to five and let the children run to an elevated deck or component of the play space. Walk around at ground level, trying to spot where they are, while they move about aloft. When you see them, call out “I see you at the slide entrance!” (Or on the high deck, or under the roof, etc.) This is a great way to encourage movement in a way that is comfortable for everyone.

Plan meals together. Set an example for the family by teaching them how to read food labels, and why this is important. There are many wonderful examples and ways to do this at Nourish Interactive’s site, including online and downloadable activities to help children understand the importance of nutrition.

Read food labels together. Its important for kids to know that food manufacturers aren’t going to tell us their food is unhealthy, so we need to be able to understand the information on the label to make the right choice! Use the tools available at My Plate to understand what we should be eating in calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, etc., then understand what you are actually getting in the food you eat, giving scrutiny to the “portion size.”  For example, a “snack size” bag of crunchy cheese bites we looked at had a label stating the serving size is 1 oz., and there were “about 2” servings in the little bag. Since the bag is 2.5 oz., there are actually 2.5 “servings.” We asked kids how much of a bag they usually eat at once, and were met with a resounding “all of it!” So therefore, instead of the stated serving’s 170 calories, 110 fat calories, and 11 grams of fat, or 17% of the recommended daily allowance {RDA}- a typical “serving,” meaning the entire bag of chips, delivered 425 calories, with 330 of them from fat, over half of the daily RDA!

A recent study published by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab surveyed people with healthy BMI (Body Mass Indexes) and also found a correlation between behavior and lower BMI. They found that habits among people with a lower BMI included:

  • Families prepared meals with fresh ingredients.
  • Families did outdoor physical activities together.
  • Children got enough sleep, and drank water more that juice or soda.
  • Parents talked to children about nutrition.
  • Children had a healthy number of hours of sleep on weeknights.
  • Someone packed school lunch for children.

The people with healthy BMI also came from families where their own parents also had a healthy BMI.

People with heavier BMIs, by contrast, had these childhood experiences in common:

  • Parents used food as a reward or punishment for children.
  • Parents restricted children's food intake.
  • Parents and/or grandparents were obese.
  • Children drank juice or soda more than water.
  • Children were bullied by peers.            

The Cornell research team uncovered these common childhood experiences by utilizing social media to recruit participants and crowd source questions and answers about how to predict obesity. The data collection involved 532 people, the majority of whom were American women.

Although we may still want to enjoy the occasional “junk food,” favorite TV show, or computer time – by helping kids understand nutrition, demonstrating the importance by eating this way at home, and engaging in healthy active behavior on a regular basis, we may be able to start moving the needle back toward normal weight, longer lives, and happier healthier people! What does your family do to stay active? What do you see as the barriers to healthy behavior? As always, we love your comments!

Anne-Marie Spencer serves the recreation industry as the Corporate VP Marketing for PlayCore in Chattanooga TN and a member of the company's Center for Professional Development.  She has presented over 80...

There is 1 Comment
Karen Delaney's picture

I look forward to your articles every month, but this one really strikes a chord. Thanks for the great work, and for everything you do to promote healthy lifestyles for people!