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Motivating the Overweight Child

Motivating overweight kids to exercise starts with their biggest role models: Their parents.
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WebMD Feature

It's one of those tricky parental situations. How do you encourage an overweight child to exercise without causing the child to reject exercise altogether as a kind of parent-enforced chore?

It turns out that encouraging a child to exercise doesn't have to be all that tricky. Parents wield a great deal of influence over their child's exercise habits pediatric sports experts say. Believe it or not, your kids look to you as an exercise role model.

"Parents need to be setting a good example," says Paul Ribisl, PhD, a professor in the health and exercise science program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Since exercise is not included in schools, children need to have planned exercise in their life.” Ribisl says parents should insist on an hour each day of moderate to vigorous activity for good health and the prevention of obesity.  

Parents' Attitudes Count

Research studies show that parents' attitudes about exercise and weight play important roles in keeping a child's weight healthy. At least one parent must participate in the weight loss process for any hope of long-term success, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders.

Another important reason to get the whole family involved is that obesity runs in families: Obese parents tend to have overweight children. For young children if one parent is obese the odds of the child being obese as an adult is threefold, whereas if both parents are obese the odds that that child will be obese as an adult increases to more than tenfold. Although the causes of obesity involve many factors, environment strongly influences the degree of overweight.

Parental involvement has never been more important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 17% of American children aged 2 to 19 were overweight, up from 11% previously.

"Parents of overweight, and particularly obese children that are inactive, should have the child assessed by their pediatrician or a health care professional before initiating any sport or strenuous exercise or activity," says Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, DrPH, an assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the University of North Texas Health Science Center's school of public health.

Age-appropriate Exercise

Here are some suggestions Ted Ganley, MD, orthopaedic director of sports medicine at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, recommends to make sure your kids exercise safely.

  • Kids' activities need to be right for their age, size, and physical development. Competitive distance running may be great for a high schooler but too stressful -- and not much fun -- for a younger child.
  • Set healthy goals. Competition is fine -- if it isn't overdone. Talk with the people who run your child's school or league team to gauge whether the attitude of coaches fits with your child's abilities.
  • Kids need protective equipment for each sport or activity, including helmets for bikers.
  • See your child's pediatrician if your child is limping after exercise, or if muscle soreness lasts throughout the day or night.
  • Not all exercise is good for kids. Weight training and contact sports are areas where parents should be cautious.

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