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Parents Hold the Key to Children's Fitness Success

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For all the suggestions, though, one theme dominates: parental involvement. "People often blame [obesity] on externals instead of looking at what's going on in the family. Why is that kid allowed to watch so much TV or play on the computer so much? Why is the food so important, why does this kid have such a drive to overeat?" asks Diana Koenning, MPH, RD, a wellness nutritionist at Healthworks in Raleigh, N.C.

Koenning works with a program called Shapedown that was developed years ago at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco by a team of physicians, exercise and mental health specialists, and dieticians. The program is designed to help obese kids, but it puts just as much focus on the kids' parents.

Family structure can be "all-important, depending upon the age of the child," Koenning tells WebMD. "Kids focus on immediate gratification, mid to older teens can tackle the problem fairly successfully if they have good motivation. Younger than that -- without the parents making changes, it's very difficult to impossible for things to change for the child."

Debbie Beasley of Raleigh, N.C., agrees. Her son, Chris, is 12 years old. He's 5'4" and used to weight 245 pounds. Though not uncommon, his case is more extreme than many kids. Beasley describes her son as "one of those kids who likes to sit in front of a TV with a video game controller in his hand." His size impeded his activity, she says, and Chris would sometimes get picked on by kids on the school bus. Upon the advice of a pediatrician, Chris and his family enrolled in the Shapedown program, which works with families to regulate eating habits depending upon the severity of the weight problem.

After 12 weeks, Beasley says she's pleased with the results. Chris has lost about 18 pounds, he's more active, and he's "learned an awful lot of about nutrition, things to look for on the labels, how important it is to drink water vs. all the Cokes he was putting away." Beasley, who's struggled with her weight, also has modified her eating habits, such as eating until satisfied instead of stuffed.

Koenning says it's important that obese people listen to their body's own cues. "Responding to cues of hunger and fullness to stop and start eating, that's a big area of disconnect for kids, and I'd say people in general, with a problem of obesity. They have lost the sensory gauging ... to body signals," Koenning tells WebMD.

Buechner's program also puts a strong emphasis on parenting skills while stressing exercise. The program "focuses on developing fitness habits in children and not focusing on weight change. Our goal, first of all, is to help parents partner with their children in family fitness behaviors," Buechner tells WebMD.

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