Personal fitness resolutions are all very well, but frankly they are a bit selfish. Gym membership is awesome and I applaud that kind of commitment. I think that it’s great when parents are fit and healthy role models, as children will learn more from what parents are than what they teach. But do we need to focus more on ensuring our children lead healthy lives too? It’s not going to be easy and we can’t just drag our children to the gym or take them out running with us. There is barely enough time to get them to all the after school clubs and get their homework done as it is. So when are we going to fit in all this extra activity without increasing already packed programmes and stress levels? Is children’s health even a real issue in the UK?
Children’s health – the facts.
Children are leading much more sedentary lives than they were just a few years ago. Nearly a third of children in the UK aged 2-15 are overweight or obese. This is pretty horrifying considering that obesity doubles the chances of dying prematurely. There has been a significant shift away from ‘free-range’ parenting to a more protective and risk-averse approach that prevents children from roaming freely. Part of the change in lifestyle can also be attributed to a sharp increase in the time spent on social media on tablets, smart phones and computers. The World Health Organisation has reported Most 11-15 year olds in England are getting over two hours screen time on an average week day.
The rise in poor child health can also attributed to poor diet. This is partly due to the rise in consumption of high sugar fizzy drinks and energy drinks.
What are the benefits of exercise?
- Strength. Weight bearing exercise like walking, running and jumping is good for developing stronger muscles and bones. The force of the muscles puts pressure on the bones and builds up strength.
- Weight. The right kind of exercise (the type that makes you sweat) is good for preventing problems with weight and obesity.
- Coordination. Balance activities help flexibility, reflexes, development of motor skills, posture control, vision development and hand-eye coordination.
- Blood pressure. Exercise will reduce the risk of developing serious health problems as children get older like diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol
- Mental health. Exercise is linked to improved academic performance, confidence, self-esteem and a positive outlook on life.
- Happiness. Being physically active can be a whole family exercise that everyone you love can enjoy and benefit from.
Getting children to embrace the three components of fitness.
- Endurance (Cardio). Children can improve their endurance with regular aerobic exercise. This is basically anything that gets them out of breath like running around the playground. We have 3 Border Collies who ensure that we get regular walks and this is one of our main activities at the weekend. We also love cycling, although this is not so easy during the short, snot-freezing cold days of winter. We have a great swimming pool nearby and our Sunday morning swim is an important and fun part of our weekend.
- Strength. My children are not likely to be enthused by the prison-weights gym that I have created in our garage, but they can build their strength in many other ways. Mine love climbing and are awesome on the monkey bars and up trees. We also go to the indoor climbing wall in winter and the outdoor high-rope course in the summer. Climbing introduces a bit of risk into play and as long as it is controlled properly, it can build self-confidence, boost psychological health and provide a real feeling of achievement. Many people also recommend allowing your children to wrestle or play fight. When my children do this (we call it bundling) it always ends in tears and is banned.
- Flexibility. I am lucky enough to have girls who love dancing and gymnastics. We found an awesome gym club that is very relaxed and basically lets them jump about and freestyle every Thursday night. I wouldn’t even try and get mine to be still long enough to do any stretching or yoga, but I am pretty sure they are getting what they need just from cartwheeling everywhere.
Rest and Sleep
Physical fitness is one aspect of health and must be balanced with good nutrition and sufficient sleep. The added benefits of exercise are that it should help children sleep well and have a healthy appetite.
Good nutrition should be about health gain rather than weight loss. Fitness starts and ends in the kitchen and it just needs small changes to make a significant impact to your family’s health. Our bodies need the right balance to fuel physical activity and metabolic needs.
- Calcium and Vitamin D. In addition to exercise, strong bones need calcium and vitamin D. Calcium comes from milk, cheese, yoghurt, cereal and leafy greens. You can get vitamin D from fish (like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel).
- Calories. The amount of calories that your children eat and drink should be balanced against how many calories they have expended through activity and normal growth. Limiting high-fat snacks and sugary drinks and including more fruit and vegetables is a good step in the right direction.
- Salt. Avoid high levels of hidden salt in foods like pesto, processed meat, ready meals and olives.
- Water. Children need to hydrate before, during and after activity and throughout the day. Water makes up about 60% of our bodyweight and is lost when we breathe, sweat or go to the toilet. Fluids need to be regularly topped up. Water is best, but anything that is unsweetened and free from additives should also be OK.
Sleep, nutrition and hydration are such important subjects; I will cover them separately in future posts.
I often find it hard to find the time to exercise every day, but I want to be a good role model. As a family we love being outside, travelling and going on adventures, but being fitter doesn’t require a radical life transformation. Small changes can make a big difference and getting the family involved in things like gardening is a great way to start. I find that talking it through and involving everybody also helps. My children always take the stairs now instead of the escalator or lift as they like making their own informed life choices. Embracing a healthy lifestyle as a family has helped me do more exercise every day too. One of the things that motivates me to stay fit is that I want my children to see me being active and having fun and I hope that it will encourage them to join in.