Pediatricians continue to be disturbed by the trends they’re seeing in the levels of physical activity of children, which appear to be headed in the wrong direction. One survey concluded that less than 25% of children in grades 4 through 12 participate in 20 minutes of vigorous activity or 30 minutes of any physical activity per day. Particularly with weight management as a goal, those numbers aren’t good enough.
Not only will regular physical activity help your child lose weight and maintain that weight loss, but it has many other benefits. For example, if your child exercises regularly, he’ll have
Stronger bones and joints
Greater muscle strength
A decrease in body fat
A healthier cardiovascular system (thus reducing his risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure)
A reduced likelihood of developing diabetes
A greater ability to handle stress
Improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem
Greater social acceptance by physically active peers
Opportunities to make new friends
Better concentration at school
You should have a clear picture of your child’s activity level—and whether he needs to change course. Is he watching too much TV? Is he spending too little time playing outdoors after school or on weekends?
As a parent, you need to help your overweight child get moving. To repeat, he should be doing some physical activity every day. In fact, it should become as routine a part of his life as brushing his teeth and sleeping.
So where should you begin? How much time does your child need to spend being active and how intense does this activity need to be?
The answers to these questions may be different for your child than it is for another boy or girl. If your overweight youngster has been completely sedentary, with no PE classes at school, no outdoor play, no extracurricular physical activities, and hours of TV watching every day, his starting point should be different than that of a fairly active youngster. There are plenty of activities that he can choose from, and he should begin to slowly and gradually pick up the pace.
Let’s say that your child decides to try getting his physical activity by taking walks or hikes with an older sibling through a nearby park. If he is really out of shape or if he has trouble imagining doing any walking at all, encourage him to set a goal of walking for only 1 minute at a time (“Can you walk for just 60 seconds?”). Once he realizes that 1 minute is an attainable target, have him increase his walking sessions progressively, to 2 minutes each time, then 3 minutes, and so on, until he’s walking for 30 minutes or more. If your youngster is already in better shape, he may want to start with a 15-minute walk and then increase it in 5-minute increments to 20 minutes, 25 minutes, and beyond. The ultimate goal is to have him spend an hour being active each day.
To most of us, a minute or two of walking doesn’t sound like much. In fact, many adolescents and adults think that exercise doesn’t really count unless it’s intense and even hurts (as the cliché goes, “No pain, no gain”). But for a child trying to lose weight, every little bit of activity helps, whether it’s a short walk to the school bus stop or a climb up a flight of stairs at school. Ultimately, once your child gets into better shape, you can encourage him to increase the duration and intensity of his activity, but the most important thing is that he just get moving and do it regularly.