Tag Archives: children

Aside

We have known for a long time that kids who spent more time watching TV were more likely to be obese. This was thought to be due to the fact that sedentary time in front of the television replaced physical … Continue reading

What parents and schools can do to make sure kids are ready to learn

Physical activity and good nutrition have long been recognized as essential for promoting good health in adults and children. More and more research suggests that these health behaviors can have beneficial effects beyond health, including how we perform both physically and mentally. The emphasis here is on children in school, but it applies to adults, too.

Unfortunately, taking time for activity and good nutrition is seen as a luxury or a distraction to learning in most schools. Far from being a distraction, physical activity and healthy eating are prerequisites for learning and academic achievement. In short, these often ignored factors can help make sure children are ready to learn.

Regular physical activity is essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. Unfortunately, most kids don’t get nearly enough activity at school and many aren’t active at home.

Physical activity is also important for academic performance. Research shows that children who participated in an activity program had better executive control, which includes resisting distractions and maintaining focus, improved memory, and doing better switching between tasks. This is particularly relevant for children with ADHD, but the effects can be seen in all kids. These positive changes can maximize class time and lead to improvements in academic achievement, especially math and reading test scores.

Similarly, good nutrition is also essential for health, growth, development, and academic achievement. Eating a good breakfast improves cognitive function, alertness, and academic performance in students of all ages. It should be no surprise, then, that skipping breakfast impairs cognitive function and academic achievement. This is one reason that many schools offer breakfast to start the day or include a healthy mid-morning snack.

The same is true for lunch, too. A good lunch can support learning in the afternoon and gives a chance to teach kids about good nutrition by providing healthy food that, unfortunately, many children may not get at home.

Schools have a unique opportunity to use physical activity and nutrition to promote health, support academic achievement, and teach healthy habits. Since formal nutrition education is missing from most curriculums and PE programs are being reduced or cut completely, schools must be creative to incorporate these essential subjects.

A way around this problem is to make sure children get a chance to move and play, ideally multiple times during the day. This is what recess is for. Teachers can also incorporate activity and nutrition education in the classroom and get away from the idea that kids must be sitting still to learn. As research shows, quite the opposite is true!

Schools are often hesitant to teach about nutrition and activity because it is thought of as a responsibility of parents, not schools. But most parents don’t teach these good habits at home, which affects what happens at school. Despite the obvious benefits, it will probably take years of effort to change this view.

In the meantime, parents can encourage their kids to be active and make smarter food choices at home so they are ready to learn in school.

Being mindful of eating habits, according to Shannon.

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Shannon earlier this week that fit with the topic of being mindful of health habits. (I have written about Shannon previously, but not for some time) 

She was telling me that one recent evening she drove to three fast food restaurants to get dinner for her family. Apparently, she wanted food from a different place than her husband, neither of which worked for her kids. As they sat down at the dinner table she became mindful of how ridiculous this was.

First, she spent almost an hour driving to fetch the food. This was time she could have spent doing any number of things, including actually preparing a meal for her family. Second was the cost, including the food itself and the gas required to drive to three different restaurants. Third, looking at the food they were eating made her realize that it wasn’t healthy. In fact, their meal included no fruits or vegetables (beyond french fries) at all!

What struck me was that the quality of the food they were eating was the last thing Shannon mentioned to me, almost as a afterthought. What got her attention was the time and money she sent on the food. Cooking at home could have taken less time and certainly would have cost less. It would have been healthier, too.

At least they ate dinner together

 

Being mindful of eating habits, according to Shannon.

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Shannon earlier this week that fit with the topic of being mindful of health habits. (I have written about Shannon previously, but not for some time) 

She was telling me that one recent evening she drove to three fast food restaurants to get dinner for her family. Apparently, she wanted food from a different place than her husband, neither of which worked for her kids. As they sat down at the dinner table she became mindful of how ridiculous this was.

First, she spent almost an hour driving to fetch the food. This was time she could have spent doing any number of things, including actually preparing a meal for her family. Second was the cost, including the food itself and the gas required to drive to three different restaurants. Third, looking at the food they were eating made her realize that it wasn’t healthy. In fact, their meal included no fruits or vegetables (beyond french fries) at all!

What struck me was that the quality of the food they were eating was the last thing Shannon mentioned to me, almost as a afterthought. What got her attention was the time and money she sent on the food. Cooking at home could have taken less time and certainly would have cost less. It would have been healthier, too.

At least they ate dinner together

 

Mindfulness matters for health.

According to a TIME magazine cover article from earlier this year, we are in the midst of a “mindful revolution.” Beyond being a trendy topic, mindfulness is important for making meaningful and lasting health behavior changes. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. 


Mindfulness can be described as an awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. This is most commonly explored through mindful meditation, a practice that is credited with improving physical and mental health. Beyond meditation, being mindful can help to improve attention and focus in nearly every aspect of life.

 

Thinking about your actions and the effect they have on your health and the health of others can be good for you and those around you. It turns out that we engage in many health behaviors that are driven more by habit than conscious decision-making. This includes what, when, and how much we eat as well as how active we are, two of the most important determinants of health.

 

When was the last time you thought about what you were eating? Not just which restaurant to go to or what time to eat, but really thought about what and how much you ate? Chances are, at least some of the time you eat when you aren’t hungry or keep eating even when you are full. You probably also eat foods you know you shouldn’t or don’t intend to, sometimes without even realizing it.

 

This concept was explored in depth by Brian Wansink in the 2006 book, Mindless Eating. Based on his research, this book helped to explain the hidden reasons behind what, why, and how much we eat, often without being aware of it. This includes marketing tricks as well as environmental factors, many of which operate outside of our consciousness, that drive our food choices and prompt us to eat. 

 

This is where mindfulness comes in. By making an effort to be cognizant about your own thoughts and sensations as well as the environment you are in, you can prevent overeating and poor food choices.

 

Furthermore, we should be aware of how our food choices influence others around us. Research shows that children of parents who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to eat more of these foods than kids without such influence. Mindful eating includes accounting for how our actions and choices can influence the decisions of other family members and friends.

 

 

The same is true for how active or sedentary we are. Being active is a choice, sometimes a difficult one, that is influenced by other people and the environment. Most people spend the majority of the day sitting at work and at home, often without thinking about it. This sedentary lifestyle has been linked to an increased risk of obesity and heart disease, so it is relevant.

 

 

Sure, it feels good to sit on the couch to watch television. Think about it: is that really the best way to spend your time? At work, taking short breaks to get up from your desk and move can make you feel more alert and energized. Isn’t that worth it?

 

 

Similar to eating, our activity choices can influence the actions of those around us. A suggestion to walk to lunch can increase your own activity and that of your friends. Planning to go for a walk or bike ride with your family after dinner is a great way to share the benefits of activity.

 

 

When it comes to health, mindfulness matters. Being mindful about what you eat and make a choice to be more active allows you to have a positive effect on your health and the health of those around you.

 

 

Keep your cool this summer.

It’s that time of year again… time for my annual Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard about being active safely in the summer heat.


No doubt about it, summer is here. The kids are out of school, sports camps are underway, the playground is calling, and the lawn needs to be mowed. And it’s hot! But the high temperature and humidity doesn’t have to keep you from taking part in your favorite outdoor activities. By taking a few precautions, outdoor activities in the summer heat can be safe and enjoyable for your entire family.

1. Drink plenty of fluids

When it’s hot you have to sweat to lose heat and maintain your body temperature. High humidity makes sweating less effective, so you sweat even more. Losing lots of water through sweating can lead to dehydration. At the very least, you probably will feel fatigued but in more severe cases dizziness, low blood pressure, and fainting can occur.

For this reason it is important to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your outdoor activity. As a general rule, a cup (8 oz.) of water every 15 minutes is sufficient for most people. Thirst is a good indicator of fluid needs, but you should take frequent breaks to rehydrate.

Make sure to remind kids to take breaks since they can get so busy playing that they forget. Water, juice, sports drinks, and other soft drinks are equally effective, so pick something you and your kids will drink.

2. Take breaks

The longer you are active the hotter you will get and you may feel more fatigued because of the heat. Taking frequent breaks will give you a chance to rest, cool down, and get something to drink.

3. Seek out shade

Being in the sun means that you will feel even hotter because you gain heat from the sun’s rays. Spending as much time as you can in the shade will help you stay cool. While this isn’t always practical for all activities, look for shady spots to take breaks.

Keep in mind that shady areas at will change throughout the day, so plan your trip to the park accordingly. Also be aware that direct sunlight can make outdoor surfaces like playground equipment very hot. This is another reason to find shady areas to play.

4. Pick cool clothes

Lighter colored clothing will reduce heat gain from the sun. Synthetic fabrics that wick sweat from the skin can help keep you feel cooler, too. And having more skin exposed will allow you to lose more heat.

5. Wear sunscreen

Sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer. Always use a broad-spectrum (both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen and apply—and reapply—it according to the instructions. You should also protect your eyes by wearing a hat or sunglasses.

6. Avoid the hottest times of the day

Try to plan your outdoor activity in the morning or evening to avoid the hottest times of the day. Keep in mind that the highest temperatures often occur in the late afternoon or early evening, so right after work may not be the best time for outdoor activities. Early in the morning is probably the best time since it tends to be cooler and less humid.

You may not be able to plan your activities in the shade or when it is cooler. This is especially true for people who work outdoors. In these cases, drinking plenty of fluids and taking frequent breaks is particularly important.

These tips should help you and your family safely enjoy spending time outdoors this summer. And never underestimate the cooling power of a popsicle on a hot summer day!

The physical activity report card is in. We pretty much failed.

The spring semester just ended at the university where I teach. Which means my colleagues and I have been busy evaluating our student’s progress and submitting grades.

About this time, another report card came in from the National Physical Activity Plan evaluating physical activity in U.S. children. The results aren’t good. In fact, we pretty much failed! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

It’s probably no surprise that the majority of Americans are not active enough. Only about half of adults meet even the minimum recommendation for physical activity of 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Compounding this problem is the fact that many people spend much of their time at work and home being sedentary—some spend over 12 hours per day sitting!

Low levels of physical activity is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and, of course, obesity in adults. Becoming more active is probably the most important change a sedentary person can make to improve their health. The impact is similar to a smoker who quits.

What may be surprising is that this is a problem for children, too. Less than half of children ages 6–11 are active for 60 minutes per day. Among teenagers, it is less than 10%! The health effects of too little activity in kids is similar to that of adults.

The combination of inactivity and obesity can lead to “adult” diseases such as type 2 diabetes in young people. For this reason, some experts predict that this generation of children may be the first ever to die at a younger age than their parents.

Current recommendations call for children under the age of 18 to attain at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity at least five days per week. In younger kids this can be achieved through active play. In teens it is more likely to include organized sports and games.

The National Physical Activity Plan is a set of recommendations, programs, and initiatives designed to promote an active lifestyle at work, school, and home for all Americans. It was established by an alliance of health professionals and researchers.

This group recently released a report card on physical activity for children and youth that graded the success of efforts to promote activity in several areas. The results show that we are failing to meet even minimum goals and recommendations. Here is a summary of that report card:

Overall physical activity: D-Only 42% of 6–11 year old children and just 8% of kids ages 12–15 meet the 60 minutes per day activity goal.

Sedentary behaviors: D. About half of all children spend more than the recommended upper limit of two hours of screen time, which includes TV, computer, and video games, per day.

Active transportation: F. Just over 10% of children walk or bike to school regularly.

Physical education in school: C-Only about half of children attend at least one PE class per week.

Based on these grades, American children are not getting enough physical activity. But it isn’t fair to say that our children are earning these grades—it’s the adults who are failing! Most children are at the mercy of parents, teachers, and other adults who decide how they will spend their time at school and at home.

The report card shows that we are either not allowing our kids to be active enough or limiting opportunities for them to move and play. This isn’t necessarily a conscious effort, but is likely a consequence of the physical activity habits of adults that our children adopt.

Given the importance of regular activity for growth, development, health, and even academic success, getting our kids to be more active should be among our highest priorities. This requires both individual action and organized community efforts to make physical activity and exercise a part of every child’s day.

And while we are at it, we (the adults) should make this same effort. Perhaps the failing grades on the recent report card will motivate us.

That’s NOT fruit!

Making healthy food choices is never easy. It is made more challenging by the fact that some foods that appear to be a smart choice may be less healthy than you think.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. It is a topic I have addressed in the past that is still relevant today. Specifically, regarding what my kids picked for breakfast this morning! This shouldn’t be a surprise, since many foods that look healthy, but aren’t are breakfast foods marketed to children.

Often, prepackaged fruits and vegetables contain added sugar, fat, or salt, making them less healthy than eating them fresh. Consumption these foods can also make it less likely that people—especially children—will eat fresh fruits and vegetables when they are available.

The problem is that these foods may look like fruit. They may even contain real fruit juice. But many drinks and snacks–especially for kids– that look like fruit are really candy in disguise.

Here are a couple of examples of foods that may appear to be healthy but, upon closer examination, turn out to be less nutritious than we might think.

Fruit snacks: These gummy fruit treats are a favorite among kids. If you check the package you will probably see that they contain real fruit or fruit juice, so they must be healthy, right? While there is variation among different brands, in most cases these snacks contain little, if any, actual fruit. If you read the ingredients you will see that they do contain lots of added sugar, meaning that many of these snacks are essentially candy. In fact, if you compare some brands of fruit snacks with something that is easily recognized as candy, such as gummy bears, you will see that they have a similar sugar content.

Fruit drinks: Not everything that looks like fruit juice is actually juice. Take Sunny D for example. This popular orange drink contains mostly sugar and water—and only 5% juice. By contrast, real orange juice contains fewer calories and more vitamins per serving. In fact, if you compare the ingredients and nutrition information, Sunny D is essentially orange soda without the bubbles!

There are two problems with this. First, some foods that appear to be healthy because they either claim to or actually do contain fruit are actually less healthy than we might believe. Considering that fruit snacks and fruit drinks are likely to be consumed as alternatives to real fruit juice or a piece of fruit as a snack, these foods could lead to poor nutrition. This is especially true in children.

Second, sweetness is one of the most important tastes we respond to. Consuming food and beverages that are flavored like fruit but are actually much sweeter may make real fruit less palatable. Again, this is especially true for children who may develop an expectation that strawberries should taste like strawberry-flavored fruit snacks or that orange juice should taste as sweet as Sunny D. These kids are likely to prefer the sugar-sweetened version over the real fruit. Since these sugar-sweetened “fruits” tend to be higher in calories, consumption of these foods is one contributor to childhood obesity.

This isn’t just the case with fruit. Adding salt and sauces to vegetables makes them more flavorful, to the point that many of us don’t eat plain vegetables very often. The majority of potatoes are consumed in the form of French fries, loaded with both fat and salt. This has changed how we expect potatoes to taste so that now we typically eat baked potatoes “loaded” with butter, sour cream, cheese or bacon. When was the last time you ate a plain baked potato?

But there are some simple steps you can take to get back to eating real fruit and vegetables. Look for 100% fruit juice or, better yet, a piece of fruit instead of fruit-flavored drinks. Instead of sugar-sweetened fruit snacks, try dehydrated fruit. Cut back on the salt, butter, and other toppings you add to vegetables or purchase frozen vegetables without added sauces.

Physical activity at school in two infographics

This week I came across two infographics explaining the benefits of including physical activity in the school day and ways kids can be active at school.

Having opportunities to be active throughout the day benefits children in many ways, from improving their health, helping them maintain a healthy weight, and promoting learning. In fact, physical activity through recess, structured PE class, and other unstructured activities is absent at many schools. This represents a missed opportunity to teach children about the importance of being active.

According to these infographics, though, engineering activity into the school doesn’t have to be difficult. And including physical activity in the school day makes children believe it is important (which it is) and helps develop habits that will last into adulthood.

alr_schools

The Role of Schools in Promoting Physical Activity | via Active Living Research

 

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 8.14.35 PM

Get 60 Minutes | via Institute of Medicine

 

Now if we could just do something about the quality of school lunches!

Today I am celebrating Food Day with…an apple!

Specifically, this apple.

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This past weekend my family was visiting the upstate and we took the kids to pick apples at Bryson’s Apple Orchard. Not only did we get a bunch of delicious apples, but the kids got to learn a little about where apples come from. As kids tend to do, they ate as they picked, and noticed immediately that the fresh-picked apples were much tastier than the ones from the grocery store. They even got to meet “Farmer Bryson,” who appreciated our business and the kids’ enthusiasm.
And this is the point of Food Day: learning where food comes from, eating fresh foods, and supporting local farmers. I tried to explain this to my kids while we were driving home from the farm, but they were more interested in eating the apples they had just picked!