Jan. 17, 2013 - Issue #900: The ongoing musical evolution of Hannah Georgas
Get off the couch
Parents are key in helping kids lose extra pounds
Over the past few years, various studies have pointed out that because of obesity, the generation of children in school right now will be the first to die younger than their parents. To think that something as preventable as being overweight or obese could take up to 10 years from a life (according to an Oxford University study) might seem disheartening, but a research project at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health has found that parents can do one simple thing to start reversing this trend: encourage their kids to exercise.
The project asked parents how much they care about staying fit and exercising, how much they encourage their children to be physically active, and how often they engage in activities together with their children. Researchers found that when parents simply encouraged their kids to get off the couch and run around, there was a 22-percent decrease in the number of overweight children.
"The national data show only less than 10 percent of boys and girls in Canada meet the recommendation for physical activity on at least six days of the week," project lead Kerry Vander Ploeg, a PhD candidate, says. "The recommendation is 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity or 13 500 steps, and they're supposed to get that every day and only 10 percent get that on at least six days of the week ... The average is about 10 000 steps per day for girls and 12 000 steps per day for boys, so they're not meeting the recommendations for steps, which is a big risk factor for overweight and obesity."
No specific guidelines were given for what "encouragement" means, but Vander Ploeg says, "I think it would be things like asking your children to turn off the TV and go outside and play, or supporting them and being interested in what they're doing or praising when they're doing something well."
And by taking it a step further and being active together, Vander Ploeg says both parent and child can benefit. "Certainly when you look at barriers to physical activity, overweight children tend to report more barriers. So as a parent, being active with an overweight child may help them overcome some of those barriers in finding activities that are enjoyable to do together."
The research project found that parents modelling physical activity wasn't as strongly associated with less overweight or obesity in children as encouraging them or engaging with them side-by-side. "So that means that you don't have to be the star athlete as a parent to have your child be more physically active, but just simply encouraging them and supporting their active behaviour can help them to be more active."
Grade 5 students from 150 classrooms across the province who participate in REAL Kids Alberta and their parents—about 10 percent of all Grade 5 students in Alberta—filled out surveys and the measurements of the children were taken. Vander Ploeg admits that sometimes people may give a desired response rather than the truth when self-reporting, but says the system they use ensures accuracy. The results come from 2008 and 2010.
Keep in mind that exercise alone will not make much of a difference if people continue unhealthy eating habits. "It's hard to out-exercise unhealthy eating. It's much easier to over-consume than it is to burn the same amount of calories. So even if you are exercising and meeting the recommendations for physical activity, but your diet is unhealthy, you're still at an increased risk for overweight and obesity."
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