Jewish World Review April 28, 2003 / 26 Nisan, 5763

BODYLESSONS: Helping our children lead healthier lives

By Judi Sheppard Missett | Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions, according to a wave of negative statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. While the doubling of childhood obesity rates within the last 10 years is enough to alarm parents, health professionals and school officials, many adults are unsure what they can do to help.

Experts agree that lifestyle habits are mostly to blame for the fact that 10 percent to 15 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight. And children in other modernized countries are facing similar struggles. Too many calorie-rich, nutritionally poor foods and sedentary leisure activities (video games, television and computers) may prove to be a lethal combination down the road.

Consider the fact that 58 percent of overweight schoolchildren already have at least one cardiovascular risk factor, and 20 percent have two or more, including elevated insulin levels, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. From 1979 to 2000, health-care costs for obesity-related conditions in youths ages 6 to 17 increased from $35 million to $127 million (in 2001 dollars).

The answer to this crisis lies in practical strategies that confront the unhealthy lifestyle habits that have taken hold in our youth and in creating urgency among adults that we need to deal with this problem head on, right now.

Here are some tactics you can use immediately, whether or not your children are overweight:

-- Make good health a family affair. Do not isolate a child who has a weight problem. Instead, work as a family unit to change what and how you eat and when you exercise. Most of all, adults need to be good role models and embrace lifelong changes themselves.

-- Realize that eating a nutritious and balanced diet is a learned skill. Read food labels, and educate yourself about fat and sugar content. Help your children to understand that whole grains are better than refined -- the fiber not only keeps them feeling full longer, it keeps their digestive systems healthy. Encourage them to grab fresh fruit, instead of a cookie. You can make fruits more attractive by having colorful selections already cut and ready to eat; try serving them with low- or nonfat yogurt for dipping.

-- Pack lunches for your children, instead of relying on the school cafeteria, and challenge local schools to get involved and support our youth by keeping vending machines and fast food off the premises!

-- Give your children lots of positive reinforcement for the efforts they make. Compliment them each time they grab a healthy snack or ride their bike around the block. But remember to keep the focus on health rather than weight loss or appearance.

-- Limit your children's access to sedentary activities like playing video games, watching television or surfing the Internet. Set a time limit and enforce it. Encourage them to go outside whenever possible, where they're more likely to hop on a bicycle, shoot some hoops, inline skate or take a spin on a scooter.

Better yet, head outdoors with them and make it a time for family fun. But don't stop there. Review the physical education programs offered at your local schools. You may be surprised to learn how little P.E. is available or required. Work with parents and school administrators to increase the role schools play in advancing our children's health.

You can get your children started with simple, familiar activities like walking or riding bikes. If they have an interest in martial arts, dance, gymnastics, or sports, contact your local parks and recreation department, community center or YMCA about affordable classes or leagues. Some children may prefer renting instructional videos so they can exercise at home in a private, non-threatening atmosphere.

The following side stretch is a perfect addition to any warm-up or cool-down, and is appropriate for adults and children alike. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and your knees and toes turned out slightly. Lift your torso tall, and place your hands on your hips. Reach your right hand overhead.

Without shifting your hips, lean over to the left until you feel a stretch along the right side of your body. Hold for 10-15 seconds, breathing naturally, then return to the starting position. Repeat the movements to the opposite side. Make sure you keep your hips still and your shoulders relaxed as you stretch, and contract your abdominal muscles to support your lower back. Repeat this stretch as desired, 2 to 3 times on each side.

Judi Sheppard Missett is CEO of Jazzercise Inc., an international aerobic-dance instruction company. Comment by clicking here.


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