Pediatricians, physical educators, and health experts say too many kids choose to fill up their lazy summer days with sedentary activities like playing video games and watching TV rather than with activities that force them to exercise. In fact, a study published in 2007 in the American Journal of Public Health reported that the body mass indexes (BMI) of more than 5,000 kindergartners and first graders increased by almost twice as much during summer break as compared with the school year. Weight gain and increased BMI can lead to health problems for your children in youth as well as into adulthood.
But helping your kids stay fit doesn't mean subjecting them to tedious treadmill workouts. "One of the things we try to emphasize is instead of having physical activity looked at as this thing you have to do, make it a reward," says Janet E. Fulton, PhD, of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA. "Use it as an incentive to say, 'OK, if you do this thing I want you to do, then ok lets go for a swim or let's go for a walk or for a bike ride.'"
Dr Fulton points out that health guidelines issued by the federal government last year recommend that children and young adults get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. "Walking briskly is a pretty good example of moderate intensity," she explains, "whereas jogging might be more indicative of vigorous activity."
Granted, getting your kids to do anything for a full hour can be a challenge. But experts say you can motivate them to get moving with the following tips.
Limit your children's television viewing to only about two hours a day. Then incorporate physical activity during their television time. Joanna Faerber, who won the 2009 National Elementary Teach of the Year award from the National Association for Sport & Physical Education for her work at the LSU Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, LA, suggests another way to sneak activity into your kids' day: Tell them to do jumping jacks during commercials. (Make it a game or a contest.)
Does most of your family time involve watching American Idol? Set a new routine. After all, children learn by example. "When you're finished eating dinner, instead of sitting around and watching TV, turn it off, or don't even turn it on, and go outside for a walk, play catch, shoot some baskets, take your dog for walk – that's always a good breath of fresh air that helps everybody," Dr Fulton says.
Obviously, you don't want to burden to your kids with too much rigidity during summer break, but planning some activities ahead of time can prevent them from being tempted to sit around the house all day, says Mary Lou Gavin, MD, medical editor for KidsHealth.org and a pediatrician at the duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. Dr Gavin recommends enrolling kids in summer camp or just setting a time each day for when they should go outside and play. Being outdoors can be a burden on really hot days so Dr Gavin suggests planning your kids' downtime when the sun is at its peak.
Lots of community organizations offer day camps during the summer that keep kids active for little or no cost. Faerber and Dr Gavin recommend looking into programs offered through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the YMCA. Day camps also offer kids who don't have the luxury of a yard a safe place to play with friends.
"When you ask kids why they're physically active or what they like about it. They'll say 'I like it because it's fun,'" Dr Fulton explains. She recommends offering kids a variety of activities so that they learn skills they can use to compete in organized sports when they grow older. "There's also a lot of other things you could learn about the cognitive aspects of keeping score and strategy, and that comes much more into play as kids get older," Dr Fulton says. Try swimming and bike riding for younger kids and summer sports like baseball and tennis for older ones.
Dr Gavin recommends keeping a stash of balls, racquets, jump ropes, hula hoops and such in your garage to guarantee your kids will always find something to do.
"Doing it alone becomes a barrier for some children," Dr Gavin says. Invite some neighborhood buddies over and see how fast they come up with active things to do. (Just tell them to keep the mischief to a minimum.)
Physical Activity Guidelines released by the federal government last year recommend that children and young adults do at least 60 minutes of aerobic, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening activity a day. Here are examples of activities that meet the guidelines.
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