by Mable Buchanan
Many Americans set general fitness or nutrition-related New Year’s resolutions, but this year, the Department of Health and Human Services has set a very specific goal: to ensure public access to healthier foods, protect worksite health care, address food insecurity and inadequate nutrient consumption in children, and prevent iron deficiency.
These goals are part of Healthy People 2020, an initiative sponsored by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. The need it addresses is urgent: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one-fifth of children in the United States are obese.
These children have a much higher risk of developing stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease later in life, and any parent knows that the longer a bad habit continues, the harder it is later on to break.
The ODPHP hopes to change this by focusing on individual behaviors and ensuring that environments like schools, worksites, health care organizations, and communities are encouraging environments for those trying to lead a healthy lifestyle. More information on Healthy People 2020 can be found at healthypeople.gov.
Many valuable local resources are available to help families reach these goals. Parents can learn more about their child’s personal health from their pediatrician. Your local health department is also a helpful resource, and nutritionists and registered dieticians can help parents learn more about what specific goals they should set for their families.
One resource for helping both parents and children reach their fitness goals is the local YMCA. Hanover Area YMCA marketing director Melissa Foreman and sports performance director Zack Seifert, CSCS, both offered insight into a new partner program launching in January at the YMCA that directly addresses the underlying factors of childhood obesity: Kids Fit for children and Y Wait for adults.
The YMCA hasn’t had a program before that was this focused on treating childhood obesity – but even though both the child and adult classes will feature an instructional component on nutrition (a few minutes out of the hour for children and a half-hour for adults), Seifert says that the goal is to “keep them engaged and keep it fun.”
“We want everyone to feel included,” he says, citing the Y’s kid-friendly Zumba and self-defense classes as examples. “Families can get involved by helping and supporting their children, encouraging them to play outside, and moving through some different movement patterns. …As you know, behaviors come from watching adults. If an adult sets a good example, the child will follow.”
Both Seifert and Foreman emphasize the importance of starting change at the household level and letting parents’ habits establish healthy examples for their children to follow.
When it comes to improving nutrition habits, “a lot of people don’t know where to start,” Foreman explains. “But once they grasp the concept, they can take off running.” She lists cooking with your child as one of the most valuable ways to get involved in their nutrition.
“Play with your kids outside. Make meals at home… show your kids how to cook healthy meals. Encourage limited screen time – that’s both TV and cell phones, Fortnite included!”
That’s a widespread concern: ABC News found that 97 percent of American children play video games, but according to the CDC only 21.6 percent get the recommended 60 minutes or more of exercise five days each week.
The Hanover Area Y’s solution? Make fitness more fun.
“We’ve really had nothing like this before,” Seifert says about the new programs. “We haven’t had an exclusive here for kids to fight obesity. We have had prior programs such as Fit and Strong that encourage movement, but we didn’t focus on nutrition as well.” He emphasizes the importance of using the program to set up healthy habits for children as they grow and begin making more of their own decisions, especially as they move out for college.
Both Seifert and Foreman stress the value of making small changes that can add up to make a big difference in your children’s lifestyles. Foreman adds that it can be as simple as debunking misconceptions about the accessibility and affordability of healthy options while grocery shopping.
She says, “At some point, you realize, ‘Hey, it’s not that expensive. It’s not that hard. It can be done.’”
For families who aren’t sure how to get started, she says, “There are numerous resources that are available to all nearby families who want their kids to overcome and prevent childhood obesity. They can drop into any Hanover Area Y locations or contact Zack directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Seifert agrees that “all it really takes is to come in and just ask.” Scouting out potential resources is the first step toward helping children with obesity find a community where they can enjoy being fit and practicing healthy eating.
“With a lot of hard work, knowledge, and fun, they can and will lead a healthy lifestyle.”
Setting A Good Example
Here are some simple steps parents can take with their kids to establish good habits and work toward a healthy lifestyle:
Take a fitness class. Check out your local YMCA, YWCA, and small businesses nearby that offer classes parents and kids can take together – you’ll be able to establish a healthy habit and scheduled family time.
Cook together and involve your child in grocery shopping. Not only will your child enjoy memories of cooking together, but they’ll also feel ownership of the dishes they were able to help create – and feel more excited to help make them again.
Get involved with youth sports. This has wonderful social benefits in addition to helping your child stay fit. There could be opportunities for you to get involved through volunteering as well.
Take a nutrient-focused approach. It’s much more important, for example, to eat a hearty breakfast with protein and try to work in vegetables and fruits throughout the day than to stick within a specified caloric range.
Try yoga. It can be a focus tool for your child and a mode of stress relief for you.
Take a cooking class. Many people who grow up disliking certain vegetables just aren’t a fan of the way they were usually cooked – so learning new techniques and ways of seasoning can be a great way to make healthy meals more enjoyable!
Take care of your overall health. It’s hard to stick to a fitness or nutrition goal if problems like asthma, iron deficiency, or blood sugar issues are getting in the way.
Find an event to set as a goal. See if there are local 5Ks in your area – 3.1 miles is a great distance to run, jog or walk with your child, or push younger children in a stroller and accomplish a goal as a team!
Eat at home more often. Eating out is a sneaky way that many of us fall into the trap of eating unhealthy foods. Try to emphasize eating at home, or while eating out, try to strike a balance between your favorite dishes and healthy options!
Find local produce. Local farmer’s markets can be a great way to help get your child excited about vegetables. Support local farmers and find fresh, seasonal produce.
Plant a garden. This can help your child learn to appreciate the fruits and vegetables you are able to grow together and help them get excited about incorporating those fruits and vegetables into meals!
Make exercise an adventure. Does your child like superheroes? You might be able to find some good role models for them in the show American Ninja Warrior. Do they enjoy adventure stories? Taking them on a hike or kid-friendly climb can be an exciting way to keep moving.
Set goals for hydration. Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day for adults and teens, two to four for toddlers, and five to seven for children in between. Be careful of added sugars in juices – water is the best source of hydration, and it’s easy to add flavor by adding fruit, cucumber, or mint.
Involve the whole family (and furry friends). You can establish the tradition of going for a walk in your neighborhood while fostering friendly relationships with your neighbors. While you’re at it, you can bring your dog along – it’s great exercise for them, too!
Stay positive. Most importantly, remember to stay upbeat, don’t sweat the small setbacks, encourage healthy body image, and always look for the positive! Taking these initiatives won’t always be easy – but it’ll be worth it.