Drop and Give Me Twenty

Dear Mr. Dad. It seems like every other day there’s a scary story in the news about childhood obesity and diabetes and more. What I rarely hear about is what to actually do about it—aside from “eat less junk and do more exercise.” I don’t find that terribly helpful. Can you offer some specific ideas on how to get my kids healthier?

A: Definitely. Before we start, though, I encourage you to stop thinking in terms of, “get my kids healthier,” and instead talk about “get healthier as a family.” As I’m sure you’ve discovered in other situations, children often pay more attention to what you do than what you say. So when it comes to diet and exercise, you’ll need to model the behavior you’re trying to encourage.

As for nutrition, in case you missed it, the food pyramid is out and MyPlate is in. The simple idea is that all of us—kids and adults—should be eating more fruits and vegetables, a bit less protein, grains, and dairy. Since the exact amounts of those categories depend on each person’s sex, weight, height, and activity level, visit choosemyplate.gov for some tools to help you calculate what’s right for you and your children.

Now for exercise. The bottom line is that most of us need more of it. But defining “more” is as hard as defining “good nutrition.” As a guideline, children should get 60 minutes of exercise every day and adults should get 30. Alternatively, adults should try to walk 8,500–10,000 steps per day, while children should shoot for 10,000-13,000. Here are some ideas to help you reach these goals.

  • Use technology as an incentive. Call me crazy, but I think the calls for kids to “just say no to technology” are completely unrealistic. In fact, our kids need to be tech savvy to succeed as adults. That said, moderation is key. And tradeoffs. Len Saunders, author of Keeping Kids Fit, suggests that children earn non-homework-related tech time by banking physical activity time. He suggests a 2-to-1 ratio–an hour of exercise earns you 30 minutes on the DS or Wii. You can hear an interview I did with Saunders at mrdad.com/radio (search for Saunders).
  • Be flexible. Those 10,000 steps or 60 minutes of exercise don’t have to be done in one chunk. Ten minutes here, 20 there add up. Also, while team sports are great, they aren’t for everyone. So encourage your child to run, jump rope, do push-ups and sit-ups, hula hoop, and do jumping jacks.
  • Do it together. Matching pedometers can make things even more fun. Regular pedometers keep track of how many steps your child takes over the course of a day and can add an element of competition. But consider getting a Striiv instead. Besides tracking steps, the Striiv (striiv.com) gives challenges throughout the day, includes games that encourage activity, and makes donations to charity when you or your child achieve your goals. My 8-year old and I have been using them for a few weeks and they’ve made walks, runs, and bike rides much more fun.
  • Use commercials. If you’re watching TV (another thing you should be doing as a family instead of using the tube as a babysitter), do a different exercise for each commercial break.
  • Talk to the school. With the focus in recent years on grades and test scores, many schools dropped or cut back on physical education. Ironically, there’s a clear connection between exercise and academic achievement: kids who exercise more tend to get better grades.