Live Healthy Because of Who Is Watching

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Thomas Jefferson said “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.” When it comes to how healthfully you eat and how much you exercise, there really are people watching – your kids.

Researchers with Duke Medicine have found that children, especially younger children (preschool age), pay very close attention to their parents’ diet and exercise. Marissa Stroo and Dr. Truls Ostbye studied data from 190 kids aged 2 to 5 whose mothers were overweight or obese. The team collected information on the children’s food intake, rating them on a scale from “junk” to “healthy.” The kids also had physical activity levels accessed via accelerometers.

Mothers reported family ideas about eating and activity, whether the parents were good role models for diet and exercise, and added their comments about what the children ate during the week.

Simply put, when the parents made healthy choices, so did the kids.

"It's hard for parents to change their behaviors, but not only is this important for you and your own health; it is also important for your children because you are a role model for them," Stroo said in a statement. "This might be common sense, but now we have some evidence to support this."

The message above is not intended to promote blame or guilt. Hopefully, it is just an eye-opening reminder that children’s health habits are formed early. What happens now could set the stage for how healthy they remain as adults. But it should also be motivating. The more healthful you live as a parent, the longer you will be around to enjoy your family!

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Start off by forgoing any thought that your (or your child’s) eating or exercise habits will be perfect 24/7. But when looked at as a bigger picture, you should make a few changes that will only bring about positives for both physical and mental health.

1. Sit Down as a Group and Make a Plan.
The entire family should have a voice in what types of foods they want to eat and what types of activities they want to do. Go on a grocery shopping trip together to make notes of new foods to try, such as an exotic fruit or a strange-looking vegetable. Explore family-friendly events in your local area that promote activity. Ask if your kids want to join a league, such as soccer or softball. Plan active vacations.

2. Eat Meals Together as a Family.
A study from the University of Illinois found that families who eat together are less likely to be overweight. Eating five or more meals together per week also reduced the likelihood of poor nutrition by about 25%. As an added bonus, family dinners also reduce the risk of future substance abuse. Remember to make healthy eating fun. Offer a reward for trying five new healthy foods. “Play” with your food by making fun pictures out of the vegetables. Healthy doesn’t have to be boring.

3. Spend Time Outdoors When You Can
Children need at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Grownups, you need at least 30 minutes. The kids will probably get some of their activity requirements at school through recess and PE. But when you are home together, be sure to make an effort to do something as a family. Walk the dog, play tag football or kickball in the yard or play a fun kids game like Hide and Seek. Visit a park, or combine healthy eating and fitness by picking fresh fruit at a farm.

4. Limit Screen Time.
None of us – children or adults – should be spending so much time in front of the TV or computer. Limiting screen time forces us to be more active. But honestly, even if you traded in the tube for a book, you would be doing something healthier for your brain! Remember that you can adjust your habits gradually. If you currently watch three hours a day, reduce it this week to 2 1/2., then next week to 2. Aim for reducing both yours and your children’s television time to no more than an hour a day.

5. Be Positive.
This is not a “diet” or a program intended for torture. When speaking of a healthy diet and exercise to your kids, stay positive. Remind each other of the benefits, even when it seems hard. And never use the words “fat” or “lazy”. Only use positive measures to get everyone in the family heading in the right direction. And if you slip, learn from it instead of beating yourself up.

Journal Reference:
T Ostbye, M Stroo et al. The effect of the home environment on physical activity and dietary intake in preschool children. International Journal of Obesity (20 May 2013) | doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.76

Additional Resources:
Raise Healthy Eaters: Be a Positive Food Role Model by Maryann Jacobsen RD

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