For Kids, Healthy Habits Mean Healthy Weights

Kids don’t need fad diets, radical weight-loss plans, or extreme workouts. It’s the little things they do every day that make the biggest difference.

With the right habits, you can keep your child at a healthy weight, or help them slim down if they have some extra pounds. The key is to make good choices part of life for the whole family -- parents included.

Healthy Habit 1: Eat dinner as a family.

Families who eat meals together often have a better diet and lower rates of obesity, research shows.

Why? When you cook at home, you control the menu, so it's easier for everyone to eat healthy. Plus, when kids eat on their own -- especially plopped down in front of the TV -- they might not pay attention to what and how much they’re food they're having, which makes it easy to overeat.

Your child may not always like everything you put on her plate, but don’t stop serving the nutritious stuff. The more kids see you and other family members eating a given food, the more likely they are to try it. Keep serving and enjoying that broccoli, and she’ll be on board before long.

Healthy Habit 2: Switch off screens.

When kids spend too much time watching TV, playing video games, or zoning out with a smartphone, odds are they’re doing that instead of something healthier, like being active or getting enough sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours of screen time a day for kids ages 2 and older, outside of homework. And children younger than 2 shouldn’t get screen time at all.

To help them cut back, don't focus on what your kids can't do but rather on what they can do. For instance, don't even mention after-school TV. Instead, make a list of activities that they can do when they come home -- stuff like dance to some music, play on the backyard playset, ride bikes, or help cook dinner. Then, let them pick something from that list.

The best way to help your child stare at screens less is for you to also limit your time with your phone, computer, or TV. Head outside to play as a family instead.

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Healthy Habit 3: Use pedometers to get everyone moving.

It doesn’t do a lot of good to demand that your child exercise. Instead, inspire the whole family to move more.

One trick: Give each family member a pedometer or activity tracker. Once a kid starts to track how many steps he's taking, it's pretty natural to want to take more. At the end of the day, everyone can compare their numbers and chart their progress. Some smartphone apps for kids, like Move2Draw, turn activity tracking into a game, which can make it even more fun for them.

How many steps should your child take? While many adults aim for 10,000 per day, a kid’s target should be higher. One study found that for kids ages 6 to 12, a healthy goal was 12,000 steps a day for girls and 15,000 for boys.

That might seem like a lot, but kids naturally move more than adults. A child's stride is much shorter, so they won't walk as far as you will.

Start slowly, and make it fun! You don’t have to march everyone around the block. Instead, team up for a game of soccer in the backyard or take a family hike.

Healthy Habit 4: Make smart snacks the easy choice.

If your fridge and pantry are stocked with nutritious stuff, you won’t have to worry about keeping kids away from junk food.

At the grocery store, buy only foods that you want your child to eat. Swap the chips, candy, and soda for better options like whole-grain crackers, fresh or frozen fruit, and milk.

At home, keep portions of cut-up fruits and veggies, trail mix, and cheese and crackers easy for kids to find.

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Healthy Habit 5: Make time for Zzz’s.

Tired kids are cranky and moody. And it’s harder for them to have the energy to make good choices during the day, like exercising or choosing water over soda.

Bedtime may get harder with teens. At puberty, their body clocks reset, and they become wired to stay up late. Because high school starts so early, many teens are constantly sleep-deprived, which raises their risk for weight gain and other health problems.

Make sleep a priority in your house. Get everyone to stick to a routine bedtime, even on the weekends. About an hour before lights out, switch off TVs, phones, computers, and video games. Give your kids something relaxing to do to help them wind down.

Don’t forget that shut-eye is good your health, too. Set a good example for your kids by sticking to your own bedtime routine.

Healthy Habit 6: Be consistent.

The most important way to help your family practice good habits is to stick to your plan. Stay consistent about the foods you have in the home, about family exercise, and about bedtime.

If you do, your kids are more likely to accept rules in the long run. If you hesitate, they're more likely to argue and push back. With persistence, you'll be able to help them embrace healthy habits, and that'll benefit them for the rest of their lives.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on March 01, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Lawrence Cheskin, MD, associate professor, Johns Hopkins Medical School; director, Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, Baltimore.

William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, director, division of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.

Karen Donato, SM, coordinator, overweight and obesity research applications, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. 

Greg Freitag, MS, CSCS, exercise physiologist, Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, Baltimore.

Dan Kirschenbaum, PhD, vice president, clinical services, Wellspring - a Division of CRC Health; director, Center for Behavioral Medicine & Sport Psychology, Chicago; professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago.

Ann O. Scheimann, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics, Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Baltimore.

Anderson, S. Pediatrics, March 2010; vol 125: pp 420-428.

Barlow, S. Pediatrics, 2007; vol 120: pp S164-S192.

Bronson, P. Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children, Hachette, 2009.

Hill, J. The Step Diet Book, Workman, 2004.

Rodearmel, S. American Academy of Pediatrics, October 2007; vol 120: pp e869-e879. 

National Sleep Foundation: “Teens and Sleep.”

Zeller, M. Obesity, 2007; vol. 15: pp. 126-136

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