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STEPHANIE OAKES

A Plan to Get Your Kids Off the Couch and Into Shape

March 27, 2000|STEPHANIE OAKES

Peter Vizcaino from San Diego is a fairly typical 12-year-old: After school, he frequently heads straight to the TV to watch a favorite show or play video games, or to his computer to surf the Internet. It wasn't until his doctor told him during a routine office visit that he was overweight and out of shape that his parents vowed to alter Peter's routine--and the whole family's priorities.

If exercise is frequently bumped from your family's to-do list in favor of electronic gadgets, you're not alone. A recent study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that 93% of U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 17 spend several hours a day watching TV, increasing their odds of becoming sedentary and overweight.

But packing on the pounds isn't the only problem. Children who become overweight during adolescence may also be increasing their risk of heart disease later in life, says Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, medical director of the Preventive Cardiac Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "We need to do a better job of educating both children and parents about their health," says Merz. "We need to work on what's available in our homes and school campuses to reduce signs of heart disease in our youth."

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Here are some practical tips for getting your family into fitness.

Getting started: It's not enough simply to exhort your kids to "go exercise." You have to show them by the example you set. If you never get off the couch or if the TV is endlessly blaring, then your kids may pick up on your sedentary habits: How else can they spend time with you but in front of the TV?

Think about ways that you can incorporate 30 minutes of activity into your day. If you can't get in 30 minutes at one time, aim for shorter bouts of activity that add up to half an hour. Plan simple activities, such as a picnic at the park where you pack a soccer ball to kick around. Or suggest an after-dinner walk or invite the kids along when you walk the dog. Simply put: Just try something new. You'll be creating some opportunities to communicate with your children, and some studies have shown that active families have a better quality of life and tend to live longer.

Age-appropriate fitness: If your children are between 5 and 9, it's a good time to help them develop basic motor skills. By introducing family activities--bicycling to improve balance, in-line skating to work on coordination, dance to encourage free movement or swimming for stamina--their skills will develop rapidly. Try to expose your children to as many physical activities as you can, and see what they like--and what you enjoy doing with them. Eventually, as their confidence grows, they will discover what activities they enjoy most.

Ages 8 to 12: Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, founder of the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas and coauthor of a recent book titled "Fit Kids!: The Complete Shape-Up Program From Birth Through High School" (Broadman & Holman, 1999), says that children's physical activity typically declines before they reach their teens. "Children become more self-conscious, and peer pressure influences activities they choose." Regular family activities may strengthen their self-esteem and self-confidence. For this age group, try a simple family hike to develop endurance and an appreciation of the outdoors. Neighborhood team sports like soccer, softball and basketball are helpful for improving teamwork and leadership skills. Also, tennis and other racquet sports can improve hand-eye coordination.

Community involvement: Enlist teachers, fitness professionals, and community leaders to find creative ways to shape up. YMCAs across the nation will hold their annual "Healthy Kids Day" on April 8. These all-day events will offer such activities as relay races, aerobics classes and swimming activities for the whole family. Additionally, many Ys offer family fitness on Saturdays.

Peter's family has joined a program available nationwide called "Operation FitKids." This nonprofit organization, run by the American Council on Exercise, provides low-cost fitness facilities for teens and families. These creative outings provide incentive to get away from the hypnotic lure of TV and video games.

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