I often get the opportunity to speak about exercise, nutrition, and health. Sometimes the message is tailored to a specific audience. Other times I have the challenge of providing information that would be relevant for everyone, from students in preschool to their parents and grandparents. It turns out that the advice I would give the youngest children applies to everyone. My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes four tips that are appropriate for all ages.
Eat a rainbow
Of fruits and vegetables, of course. You have probably heard that you should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. In truth, you should get about twice that. Fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins and minerals and are a good source of fiber. It turns out that dark and brightly-colored fruits and vegetables are rich in these essential nutrients. For example, even though spinach and iceberg lettuce have about the same number of calories, spinach contains significantly higher levels of iron and potassium. Red and orange fruits and vegetables such as cantaloupe are high in beta-carotene, an antioxidant vitamin linked to a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. Eating a variety of colors will make sure you get all of the essential vitamins and minerals and make meals and snacks more interesting.
Play every day
According to the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines, children should get 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day, with an emphasis on vigorous activity. While this recommendation can be met through sports, there are benefits to unstructured play, especially in younger children. The important thing is that kids have opportunities to be active at school and at home. Like children, adults should be active every day, preferably doing something we enjoy. Since adults don’t spend time running around playgrounds, we get much of our activity through exercise, but the benefits are the same. Regular activity is essential for maintaining a healthy body weight, improving strength and fitness, and preventing disease in adults and children.
Children who eat breakfast every day perform better in class and on standardized tests, have fewer absences, and are less likely to be overweight. A good breakfast can improve memory, attention, and alertness in kids and adults. Eating breakfast is also associated with healthier choices for meals and snacks throughout the day. This is important for losing and maintaining weight. In fact, 80% of people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off report eating breakfast every day. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day!
Don’t spend too much time watching TV
Or playing video games, or in front of the computer. A typical child spends almost as much time each week in front of a screen as they do in school! This is a major contributor to childhood obesity for two reasons. First, what we now call “screen time” is mostly sedentary, replacing opportunities for activity. Second, television viewing exposes kids to advertisements which promote eating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and calories. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum of two hours of TV time per day. Kids who limit their screen time also get more sleep and do better in school. By the way, these same problems apply to adults, too. So do the benefits of reducing screen time.
As I write this I am reminded of the essay “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum, which recounts simple lessons we learned as children that are relevant at all ages. I think the idea that the simplest lessons apply to everyone holds true for exercise, nutrition, and health information, too.
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