Thursday, January 22, 2015

Healthy Eating and Physical Activity: Change Starts Here

Promoting physical activity and healthy eating has always been an interest of mine. This led me to start working with children, specifically African American girls at risk of being overweight as adults. I researched school-based intervention strategies early in my career, engaging students in their overall health. My colleagues and I were sharing great information, but we weren’t interacting with parents and family members, the most important (and influential) people in kids’ lives.

Today it’s more important than ever for children to receive the same messages at school as they do at home. Teachers want to keep order—and a room full of young children jumping and playing is often quite the opposite. This lack of parallel between teachers and parents has been the focus of my most recent research, which I am collecting data for and preparing to analyze the results.

A child’s health and well-being starts at the family level. When we see children who don’t take healthy eating and physical activity seriously, it’s the first place we turn for fostering a behavior change. There is no one-size-fits-all intervention, but below are four things that can help.

Social support: Having someone to lean on within the family structure is crucial, whether it’s providing transportation to practice or simply sharing the activity. Kids who know physical activity is meaningful and that they can rely on someone for encouragement are always more motivated to stay active. This also reaches beyond the family structure. Some parents use social media for support with behavioral change. They need that daily interaction and can find it with people online. It’s all about finding the right support system.
Role models: It’s amazing how kids are so easily influenced, even when parents and family members don’t realize it. For example, children should not only share in physical activity with their parents, but they should observe them participating in their own exercise routine like running or yoga. This helps the importance of physical activity sink in. It’s also great when parents practice what they preach by eating healthy foods and providing opportunities for their children to get involved like shopping at a local farmer’s market or trying new activities together.

Holistic wellness: My research has always focused on physical wellness. But as I think more about overall health, and as I work with disadvantaged populations, I’m moving more toward a holistic approach to wellbeing. How can someone be physically well if they are not well emotionally or financially? All of these areas work together, so when people are faced with more pressing issues, physical activity and healthy eating often fall to the backburner. Setting and achieving goals in other areas of health and wellness can help families get to a place where healthy eating and physical activity become higher priorities.

Accessibility: If people don’t have access to parks and trails or grocery stores with good fruits and vegetables at a fair price, it is much more difficult to stay active and eat right. Of course, just because people have access to these resources doesn’t mean they will use them, but it becomes impossible without access.
Tips for Staying Active and Eating Right

Whether you’re working toward a positive change with your child or just looking for helpful ways to stay active and promote healthy eating, consider these four tips.

Plan outdoor/physical activities as a family. While the weather can sometimes be challenging in places like Minnesota, there are a variety of parks and lakes available to the public. It’s important to make physical activity a normal part of family time. Head out for a walk or find a playground nearby.

Get kids involved. While kids need parents or guardians who are active role models in their health and wellness, they also need to feel supported in their own There are a number of affordable options like soccer offered at local parks, dance classes or even play groups that kids can enjoy with support from their parents or guardians.

Make time for family meals. It’s important to allow 20-30 minutes for slowing down and sitting at the table together. Research from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health shows students who engage in regular family meals are less depressed, have better grades and eat more fruits and vegetables and less fast food.

Let your children help with food preparation at an early age. This can be as simple as letting your children help with washing fruits and vegetables. Not only will they see the importance of healthy food by working to prepare it, parents and guardians are more likely to prepare meals at home if it means quality time with their children. If they are too young for washing or cutting food, try kid-friendly meals such as personal pizzas—great for assembling a masterpiece by spreading the marinara and choosing toppings.

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