Virginia de la Torre is a typical 9-year old. She loves horseback riding, math, and dreams of starting a girl band with her friends. Last semester she participated in soccer and gymnastics, but this year, her busy schedule doesn’t allow her to participate in these activities anymore.
Jesenia Pacheco is also a typical 10-year old. Two weeks after getting a cast taken off her broken ankle, she’s still hobbling a little as she walks.
“I want to play softball,” she said, winding up as if to throw a fast pitch. “I am really good at throwing.” However, living far from her school prevents her from participating in after-school sports programs.
The two friends are a lot alike, despite their outward appearance. At 52 pounds, Virginia is tiny for her age. Jesenia, on the other hand, is obese. Both girls are at risk for health problems later in life. Both spend more time in front of their televisions than they do on the playground. Both eat diets full of dangerous trans fats and sugars.
Many members of the USF community have young children in their lives, whether they are their own children, siblings, relatives or neighbors. Others participate in mentorship programs in the community. With a growing concern about childhood obesity and inactivity, kids need to be encouraged to exercise and eat healthily. As parents, older siblings and mentors, we have a responsibility to encourage children to adopt the habits that will help them grow into happy, healthy adults.
What can we do to help kids become healthier? Exercise physiologist Elizabeth Quinn encourages parents and caregivers to first set a positive example for kids.
“A research study shows that in families where both parents were active, 95 percent of the children were active.” But you don’t have to be a marathon runner or pro athlete to set an example. “Even if you aren’t as fit as you’d like to be, your encouragement still makes a difference,” she says. She also recommends children be taught that fitness is a “fun adventure.” You should avoid making negative comments about the child’s performance. Since many school physical education programs are lacking or non-existent, kids benefit from involvement in extracurricular programs offered at places such as the YMCA.
Different kids enjoy different kinds of sports. Remember the skinny kid that always got picked last for gym class? That same kid probably ended up as a state champion cross country runner in high school. It’s important to choose a sport that will cater not only to the child’s interests and abilities, but also to his or her personality. As Jesenia noted, she feels she has a good throwing arm. She might enjoy playing on a softball team, but because of her introverted personality, she may also like individual activities such as swimming, hiking and cycling.
Virginia’s parents describe her as a “social butterfly” who loves to be the center of attention. She loved being on the soccer team, but she might also enjoy individual activities such as figure skating, dance and gymnastics, which allow her to perform in front of an audience.
Everywhere they go, kids are bombarded with poor nutritional choices and mixed messages. Fast-food and junk-food ads targeted at kids are everywhere. Children begin assimilating media messages from a young age. They learn that the ideal woman is tall and thin and the ideal man is muscular and strong. This may cause them to develop a distorted body image, which is why helping kids make healthy nutritional choices can be a delicate issue.
While we want our children to make good choices, we don’t want them to fall into a good food/bad food mentality or develop eating disorders. The best solution, according to nutritionist Larrian Gillespie, is to provide children with a variety of nutritious choices at home and to emphasize the fact that some foods (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and lean proteins) are “everyday” foods, while others (sweets, fast food and processed snack foods) are “sometimes” foods. This way of eating will make them grow strong and feel energetic. Gillespie suggests that parents offer kids snacks such as eggs, yogurt and sweet potatoes. She suggests that parents encourage kids to eat broccoli by dipping it in melted cheese or serving it with butter and parmesan cheese. According to Gillespie, one of the best ways to teach a child about nutrition is to include them in the preparation of healthy meals.
As a cousin, sibling or mentor, there may not be an opportunity to place a kid in a program or make day-to-day decisions about the child’s nutrition. But it’s possible to set a good example. Take a child to the park or to the roller skating rink instead of to the movies. Talk to him or her about making healthy choices. Most importantly, take care of yourself. Children idolize their siblings, cousins, mentors and aunts and uncles. Something as simple as following a fitness routine and a healthy eating plan can have a very positive impact on them.
Some organizations, such as Kid’s Health, have Web sites that present information on exercise, healthy eating and other topics presented in entertaining, fun, kid-friendly ways. The site covers topics like “Eating for Sports.” School-age children can be directed to such a Web site , where they can not only do their own research, but also play games and direct their own questions to experts in various fields.