How to Get Your Kids in Shape

Have you been neglecting your children's fitness? If so, you may only be helping to raise yet another generation of overweight, unfit couch potatoes, according to Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., founder and president of the Cooper Clinic in Dallas and a world-renowned authority on aerobics and fitness.

"Research shows that kids are fatter and less fit today than they were 20 years ago," says Dr. Cooper.

Experts recommend children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days to maintain good health and fitness and for healthy weight during growth.

Roadblocks to fitness

Roadblocks to fitness

Lack of activity combined with poor eating habits are to blame. Dr. Cooper cites these primary factors contributing to children's inactivity:

  • Lack of physical education in schools. Most states have no mandatory physical-education programs in their school systems.
  • Motorized transportation. Children aren't riding their bicycles or walking to school anymore.
  • Television, computers and video games. Children spend at least 25 to 35 hours a week watching television, playing video games or sitting behind their computers.

"By the time children graduate from high school, they've spent far more time at the computer or television than they have sitting in front of their teachers," says Dr. Cooper.

Some parental solutions

Some parental solutions

Because schools are lagging, parents must usher children into a higher level of fitness, Dr. Cooper stresses.

Before encouraging your child to begin a new sports or fitness program, however, make sure he or she has a physical exam. The doctor will look for any previously undiagnosed medical problems, or hearing or vision problems that would make participating in sports more difficult.

Also keep in mind your child's physical abilities. As kids grow older, they develop more sophisticated skills, so any activity should be age-appropriate.

At a minimum, parents ought to ensure youngsters engage in at least 60 minutes of activity, collectively, most days of the week.

Your child doesn't have to belong to a sports team to become fit. Competitive or team sports aren't for everyone. Some children feel too self-conscious to play on a team, or they fear they will embarrass themselves. Some kids might not be coordinated enough -- or believe they aren't -- to play on a team. Still others just aren't interested in team sports. What's important is that your child is active in some way.

Physical activities that a child can take on to adulthood include bicycling, running, hiking or the martial arts. They offer a good aerobic workout, but don't require a team to participate.

Dr. Cooper's comprehensive book on the topic, "Fit Kids! The Complete Shape-Up Program From Birth Through High School," details a variety of ways parents can help raise healthier, fitter children.

  • Limit the amount of television and video games. Children two or younger should not watch television. Children 3 to 11 years should watch television or play video games no more than 30 minutes daily.  Children 12-17 years should watch television or play video games a maximum of 1 hour a day.
  • Become a great role model. "That's the key to success," says Dr. Cooper. "You must set the example for children and lead them." Exercise regularly yourself -- or better yet, exercise with your kids. Emphasize that physical activity is a key part of every day. In addition, consider assisting with your children's community sports teams as a coach, sponsor or helper. Don't make winning the only goal.
  • Launch a family fitness program. Hold a family meeting to brainstorm and choose fitness activities. A weekly fitness outing might include walking, jogging, hiking, canoeing, swimming, cycling, tennis, ice-skating, basketball, skiing, skateboarding, biking, lawnmowing and yard work.
  • Arrange for someone else -- a friend, grandparent or sitter -- to accompany your children to an athletic event or a workout if you can't make it.
  • Get your children's peers involved. Throw a sports party, enroll in community sports programs or arrange for biking outings or vigorous playground games.
  • Remember that activity doesn’t have to be sports-related or fun.  Mowing the lawn, weeding, taking out the garbage, housecleaning, washing the car and other productive activities get the heart and lungs working and burn calories.  Don’t be afraid to ask you child to “work."
  • Take a vacation from the media.  Unplug the television, internet and video games.  Multiple epidemiological studies positively link the time spent watching television with overweight and obesity.  If you feel that television is necessary, limit the viewing time to 30 minutes (one program) per day.  
  • Limit fast foods to a once-a-week treat, or eliminate them entirely.
  • Draw up a written parent-child contract with each of your youngsters. "This can be very effective, particularly when combined with some kind of reward," says Dr. Cooper. Meet with your children to define mutual goals, agree on activities and rewards, set up a monitoring system and sign contracts.

Sample activities: Walk with a pet, family or friends; walk or ride a bike to school; in-line skate; wash the car; rake leaves; play sports on a school or community team or with family or friends; or go swimming.

Sample rewards: stickers or stars (for younger children); toys; guitar or karate lessons; an allowance increase; an overnight stay at a friend's house; driving lessons; watching a favorite TV program; permission to not do a regular chore; or more phone use.

To add structure to an aerobics program for older children, consider tying rewards to a system of aerobics points.

Safe play

Safe play

No matter what physical activity your child takes part in -- team or individual -- make safety a part of it.

  • Your child should wear a helmet, when appropriate, for the activity in which he/she is engaged.  A few examples are biking, riding in motorized vehicles (such as ATV’s,  dirt bikes and motocross), baseball (batting), hockey, and many other.  Almost all national professional sports (except boxing, soccer and basketball) require helmets.
  • Encourage your child to warm up before starting a vigorous sport or activity to prevent injury. Warm-up may include a mild form of the actual activity, or other activity to get the muscles warmed up and working at optimum.  After the activity is completed the child may cool down by stretching or slowly decreasing activity.
  • Make sure your child's coach knows how to deal with concussions and other potentially serious injuries.
  • Your child should wear sunscreen when outdoors, even on cloudy days.
  • Trampolines should be off-limits because of the high number of injuries associated with them, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.