Healthy Actions Weigh More Than Words
Healthy choices for mind, body and spirit are something every family should talk about, particularly in this age of digital freedom and super-sized meals when it is all too easy for families to fall into unhealthy patterns. But talking alone isn't enough.
Children are like sponges, absorbing every nuance of their parents' behavior, and studies show that parents who "walk the walk" not just "talk the talk" have children who follow through with healthy choices related to wellness.
"Do as I say not as I do' is not going to get us anywhere," says Kelly Duffey, owner of Fitwize4kids, a children's fitness facility in Cary. "Modeling healthy behaviors is one of the most effective ways to encourage our kids to pick up and lead effective lifestyle habits, and it is huge in the fight against this childhood obesity trend."
Encourage physical activity
Today's children have more digital entertainment options than ever before, which can lead to sedentary behaviors and isolation unless parents offer guidance and alternatives to technological entertainment. Teaching children about life balance and moderation helps them internalize and practice healthy behaviors.
"Lots of research has proven that children in households where the parents are active themselves are more likely to participate in physical activity as well," says Jessica Bottesch, co-owner of Empower Personal Training in Durham. "When you consider families who sit in front of the TV versus parents who are biking after dinner or involved in tennis clubs, the children in the active families are much more likely to emulate those behaviors later on."
In the April 1994 Journal of Pediatrics, Thomas Rowland and Patty Freedson urged a lifestyle of regular physical activity for long-term health outcomes for children. The authors note that providing enjoyable physical activities is a powerful strategy for increasing activity levels of youth and creating positive attitudes toward exercise that carry over into adulthood.
"Especially in the younger years, you want to make [exercise] enjoyable and fun and make it more likely they will repeat the behavior," Bottesch says. "It's important for it to be enjoyable, and it gives children a boost to their self-confidence and sense of accomplishment when they achieve physical feats."
Many children today are so overscheduled they are unable to take time to relax and focus on social or physical activities with friends and family. "In this computerized society where so much of our entertainment and information comes from a TV screen or computer screen, I think it is so incredibly important for parents to really limit screen time and encourage physical activity and start having open communications," Bottesch says.
Value time with family and friends
For a healthy life balance, it's important to spend time together as a family. The silver lining in a tough economy is that families are forced to focus on what really matters — each other.
Research shows that families who spend time together, particularly at the dinner table, have better communication, tend to eat healthier meals, and have children who are less likely to use drugs or suffer from depression.
Well-adjusted adolescents and frequent family meals are linked, according to psychologists B.S. Bowden and J.M. Zeisz. In a 1997 survey of 527 teens ages 12 to 18, the teens who were best-adjusted ate a meal with an adult in their family an average of 5.4 days a week, compared to 3.3 days for teens who didn't show good adjustment. The well-adjusted teens were less likely to use drugs or be depressed and were more motivated at school and had better relationships. Bowden noted that mealtimes were a sort of "marker" for other positive family attributes and seemed to play an important role in helping teens cope well with the stresses of adolescence.
Provide wellness strategies and information
Experienced parents say it's important to model a positive attitude and effective wellness behaviors. Alice Koenig of Raleigh, mother of three children ages 13, 16 and 18, says she has stood by some hard-and-fast rules for her family that include good nutrition, a good night's rest and regular exercise. She serves well-balanced meals, limits soda and fast foods, and encourages her children to drink milk.
Koenig also makes a point to model these behaviors herself. "They see that I walk every day and I make that a part of my life, so my daughter, who does not participate in team sports, will walk with me."
Sarah Martin, president of the Wake Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Council and mother of two children, ages 8 and 11, says her family makes exercise a group activity by working out at a gym together several times a week.
The Wake County PTA is involved this year in a nationwide effort to promote healthy lifestyle changes for families and children. The Healthy Lifestyles 5K Run/Walk, organized for the first time last November, was part of that effort, along with a challenge to local schools to set up walking clubs for children and families.
"I think one of the things that is really important is to make it clear we are not just talking about fitness," Martin says. "We are talking about making lifestyle choices and changes with regard to fitness, nutrition and attitudes."
To that end, the PTA also is working with the Student Health Advisory Council in the Wake County Public School system on a nutrition-labeling project within select schools.
Nutrition labels and fat content of all items sold in the selected schools' cafeterias will be provided to staff and students. The study will observe whether children at 12 selected schools (elementary, middle and high school) make different choices based on the information provided. The idea is to draw students' attention to what they purchase and put into their bodies, Martin says.
Bottesch says some parents, particularly parents of young girls, are afraid to talk about healthy eating with their children because there is so much fear of anorexia and poor body images. But she stresses how important it is for parents to communicate about healthy lifestyle choices.
"I think it's good for parents to talk about this if they can focus on the positives and emphasize the benefits of wholesome foods and the physical and psychosocial benefits of exercise," she says.
Attitude is everything
Lifestyle change is about more than calories and treadmills. Without a change in attitude, no other change will be successful. And real change begins within.
Parents say attitude is a monumental factor in lifestyle choices. "We have a lot on us these days, this sandwich generation, and how we handle situations is important for our children to see," Koenig says. "I have been through a divorce, and if I just crumble and am bitter and angry, then that's not healthy. Children need to see that you can be strong and happy and handle life's challenges."
Koenig tells her children they can always choose to have a good day, but if they go in with a bad attitude, then it's certain to be a bad outcome. She also encourages a sense of humor.
And laughter may truly be the best medicine, as the saying goes. A study presented at the American College of Cardiology in March of 2005 showed that subjects who watched comedy films and were then tested for cardiovascular changes had healthier cardiovascular function. The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, showed for the first time that laughter causes the inner lining of blood vessels to dilate, which increases blood flow.
Lifestyle change is an all-encompassing change in perspective. Showing children how to remain secure and happy in the midst of life's stressors is one of the most powerful lessons a parent can offer. Don't allow stressors, like the current economic news, take a toll on your family's health. Instead, guide your family on the path to wellness in mind, body and spirit. Some things in life are still free, and a brisk walk outside is one of them.
Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle-area health and science writer who eats breakfast because "it's good for you," tries hard to have family meals at least four or five times a week, and believes there is a grain of truth in all of those old sayings like, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away!" and "Laughter is the best medicine."
Parenting Style Affects Children's Eating Habits
A study in the July 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests that parenting style plays a major role in childhood eating habits, which means family dynamics are critical when it comes to healthy lifestyle choices.
In a study of 239 parents with children in first grade, researchers at Oklahoma State University found that parenting styles correlated with childhood eating habits.
Strict Parents: Tend to restrict certain foods or use pressure to improve their children's eating habits.
Permissive Parents: Were more relaxed about the types of foods their children could eat, but offered little guidance in food selections.
Authoritative Parents: Were somewhere in the middle. They tended to set limits on their children's diets but used self-modeling or other more positive approaches to encourage healthy choices.
Based on their research, Dr. Laura Hubbs-Tait and her colleagues concluded that parenting styles are a major factor in childhood eating habits. Researchers suggested that "interventions that fail to address underlying parenting styles are not likely to be successful."
Improve Family Health with Simple Changes
Kelly Duffey, owner of Fitwize4kids in Cary, organizes Healthy Family Living seminars during which parents are asked the following key questions related to lifestyle choices:
Do you skip breakfast?
Do you exercise less than four times a week?
Do you reward yourself with food?
Do you stock the pantry with sweets and empty carbohydrates?
Parents who answer "yes" to a majority of these questions can make 2009 a year of healthy changes with some simple steps such as:
Eat breakfast. Include fruit choices and whole grains.
Eat dinner at home together as often as possible.
Take after-dinner walks as a family.
Find physical activities your family enjoys, such as tennis, walking or swimming.
Choose parking spots farther away from buildings.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Be aware of portion sizes. Ask for a take-home box when eating out.