6 Steps to Kids Fitness

by Norine Dworkin

Thanks to a fast food/soda pop diet and the attractions of the TV, childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions.

“It's not unusual to see a 12–year–old weighing 250 pounds,” says Christiane Wert, M.P.H., R.D., program director for KidShape, a Los Angeles weight management program for children.

Overweight kids are targets for other kids' barbs, which can leave emotional scars, but there are more immediate physical concerns – high blood pressure, cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease. Excessive weight also exacerbates asthma, contributes to orthopedic problems like hip displacement and knee fractures, and may lead to early menstruation in pre–teen girls, a risk factor for breast cancer.

The problems are all preventable, Wert says, if children slim down by eating nutritious food and getting more physically active. It's not just a matter of cutting calories, which tends to deplete muscle mass along with fat; this kind of “dieting” not only weakens children, but ultimately slows down fat metabolism.

In contrast, exercise boosts metabolism on a 24–hour basis. When kids are regularly active, their bodies burn more calories even when they're sitting around watching Xena.

Here are some of Wert's ideas for enticing even the most sedentary kids to get physical:

Make exercise fun.
“Think of activities that kids enjoy and that they'll succeed at,” advises Wert. “If you pick an activity that's too difficult for them to master, they'll feel like failures and won't want to keep doing it.” Ice skating, inline skating, or skiing, for example, may be great for some, but too complex for others. Consider snowshoeing, a bike ride, a martial arts class, or even something as simple as a hike through the park or a brisk walk at your favorite shopping center. Better yet: Ask your kids what they might like to try.

The family that plays together...
Parents (and siblings) should get on board with the new exercise program. The more family members who get enthusiastically involved, the better. “If parents see exercise as a chore, kids will sense that and won't want to do it,” notes Wert. Instead, form Team Family so that the child doesn't feel singled out or punished for being overweight. When was the last time you did something fun and active with your children?

Reward effort.
Set up a point system for exercise. For instance, keep track of everyone's exercise feats with a chart on the refrigerator. Don't make it a competition, but reward the whole group's accomplishment. When everyone has done three exercise activities a week, say, celebrate by doing something special. But never use high–calorie sweets or fatty foods as a reward, Wert cautions; it sends the wrong message. “Food is something to nourish the body, not a reward or punishment,” she states firmly: “If at the end of a week of healthful eating, you reward your child with an ice cream sundae, it will seem more desirable than the healthful food. The child may become consumed thinking about it.”

Instead of food, try tickets to a sporting event, the theater, a concert or the movies. Girls might like a massage or facial at a day spa. Or splurge on athletic equipment like skates, mountain bikes, a gym membership, even something as simple as a jump rope or wacky exercise video.

Circuit–train at home.
Who needs a fancy home gym when you've got stairs, living room furniture and canned goods? Using everyday items as exercise tools makes for creative fun. Wert suggests establishing workout stations throughout the house for specific exercises. Do as much as you can at one spot in two or three minutes, then move on to the next station.

Jog five or six times up and down the stairs in the allotted time, move on to crunches with your legs up on the couch, then hustle to the kitchen to curl two 10–oz. cans of tomatoes or water bottles. Finish the routine by jumping rope on the porch. Do the circuit several times. Make it more fun by blasting your kids' favorite music.

Turn your living room into a disco. Pump up the volume, and shake it. Sure, it's high on the corniness meter, but it can also be a lot of goofy fun.

Play schoolyard games.
Tag, touch football and capture the flag are aerobic outdoor games that everyone can play. Invite other families on your block to join in, and it becomes a big social event –– not like exercise at all. When they're having fun, kids barely notice the huffing and puffing.

When the weather is nasty, a great indoor option is crab soccer. Get down crab–like, scuttling on your hands and feet to move a soft Nerf ball from one end of the family or rumpus room to the other. Just be sure to clear away anything breakable before you start.

Does your child need more exercise?
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