05-18-09 RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As rates of childhood obesity rise, many parents are seeking ways to get their kids to eat less and exercise more. Sometimes it seems like an uphill battle against a constant barrage of TV commercials, checkout-aisle candy, video games, websites, and other temptations. If you have been struggling with your children to get them to eat right and get more exercise, there’s good news. You are more in control of the situation than you might think.
THE DETAILS: Research on 106 families over a 6-year period, as part of the Framingham Children’s Study, has found that children’s weight gain was directly linked to their parents’ eating behavior, and that the children’s physical activity levels were directly related to their parents’ exercise patterns. In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, researchers found that by ages 9 to 11, children’s tendency to be overweight was directly proportional to the their parents’ tendency to be either overly restrictive or disinhibited in their own eating patterns. The authors conclude that the children lost the natural ability to regulate their eating as a result of internalizing their parents’ inability to effectively control their own eating behavior. In another report from the Framingham Study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found that children of physically active parents were 5 to 6 times as active as children of sedentary parents.
WHAT IT MEANS: These findings that children’s weight is heavily influenced by their parents’ eating and exercise behaviors fits with a general principle of family life: Kids learn more from watching what you do than from hearing what you tell them to do. If your kids see you eating moderately, being physically active, and exercising frequently, they will be likely to follow your example.
So the good news is that by modifying some of your own behaviors, you can influence your children to develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime. The difficult news, of course, is that it is up to you to change your behavior. Here are a few recommendations for some minor changes that can yield major results for you and for your kids:
• Don’t turn eating into a test of discipline. Avoid highly restrictive, short-term diets that demonstrate deprivation to your children and turn eating into a struggle instead of a pleasure. Instead, model for them a balanced, long-term, sustainable approach to eating. Not only does that help your kids, making healthy, lasting changes to your eating habits seems to be a better way to lose weight than following crash diets, as Rodale.com reported last week.
• Treat food like food. Do your best to eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full, and to eat slowly and mindfully whenever possible. Plan family meals so you can all enjoy food as part of the time you spend with each other. Avoid using food as a reward, or withholding food as a punishment, either for your kids or yourself.
• Make exercise part of family life. It doesn’t help much to tell your kids to put down the video games and go play outside while you’re planted on the couch watching TV. Take your children out for walks, hikes, and bike rides. Have them join you for yard work, gardening, and other outdoor chores. Play ball, jog, or jump rope with them. When they are old enough, bring them to the gym with you, and show them how to use the equipment for their workouts while you do yours.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears weekly on Rodale.com.