Shaping Your Children’s Healthy Behaviors

Children are introduced to influential factors every day— friends, teachers, games, and television to name a few. Parents need to be aware that their behavior plays an important role in molding their children’s behavior as well. When influenced in a positive manner, children can learn to develop healthy habits, such as eating and physical activity, that will stay with them throughout their lifetime.

Proper nutrition and physical activity are vital to children of all ages. “Healthy diet and exercise are the building blocks for strong bones, muscles, and self-esteem,” says Dr. Kyla Berreth of Children’s Healthcare Center. Studies suggest that physical activity can be a tool of improvement for the mental and thinking functions of a child.

Eating the right foods and becoming active can also combat childhood obesity, which is on the rise in the United States. Nearly 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese. “Carrying extra weight adds excessive stress to joints, muscles, bones, and the heart, says Dr. Berreth. “Being overweight raises the risks of certain diseases also.” Overweight babies have a greater chance at becoming overweight teenagers, and then adults. For that reason, early intervention is key.

It’s common knowledge that a healthy diet and exercise leads to a better quality of life. However, it’s not always easy to maintain. But it’s something you need make a conscious effort to control. It’s not likely that children will modify their activity level or diet on their own. It’s up to you, as a parent, to instill better health choices for your family.

“Parents build the model of healthy or unhealthy behavior for their family,” says Dr. Berreth. “It’s very important to develop an environment that promotes a healthy lifestyle. This can be done by controlling a child’s television time, bringing only healthy food into the home, and by setting rules for the types of foods paired with social activities. Children learn from watching and imitating their parents.”

Research show how substantial a parent’s influence is on a child. One particular study assigned obese children, ages 8 to 12, to various types of weight loss programs. The groups were taught healthy diets, exercise, and behavior. In one group, the children, alone, were given positive feedback and encouragement for their gains in weight loss and behavior changes. Another group included the children and their obese parents.

The study uncovered that when obese children and parents worked together, both were more successful at making positive changes in weight and behavior. Getting families to work together provides a profound benefit for children.

It’s never too late to implement healthy changes into the family dynamic, but research suggests that the earlier children learn healthy behaviors the more likely they are to continue them through life.

The ideal time to start introducing your children to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables is during the infant and preschool stages. Getting toddlers to like fruits and vegetables can be difficult and some parents prematurely give up when a child rejects a new food. Research suggests that children have to taste a new food many times before they begin to like it. So the more times you offer the food, the more likely your child will accept it.

Don’t get discouraged if your child doesn’t warm up to a new food right away. Stay positive, but avoid conflicts and stress over the food choice. Use the approach of “just one bite of new food at a time” and create a relaxing and pleasant environment. Children are more willing to be open to new things if their stress levels are low.

When introducing healthy eating habits to your children, be sure to use correct (child-size) portions. Children under the age of three will typically stop eating when they are full, but as they grow older, the more food you put on the plate, the more they will eat. Keep that in mind when dishing out portions.

It’s important to teach young children about feelings of fullness. If your child asks for a second helping respond with, “You must really be hungry tonight,” instead of saying, “No, you’ve had enough.” A positive tone can effectively influence healthy behaviors. Another way to promote a healthy lifestyle is to avoid certain situations. Eliminate the opportunity to respond with a “No” when your child asks for a cookie but keeping cookies out of the house altogether. Replace them with a healthy snack such as an apple.

By bringing unhealthy foods and sugary drinks into the house, parents take on the task of becoming the food police. It’s a less than desirable job that can be avoided by creating an environment that has access to only healthy foods.

Along with food choices, parents need to be aware of their children’s activity level. Children should get at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. Limiting television and computer time to 1 or 2 hours per day can shape healthy behaviors.

Subtle changes in the home dynamic can have a huge effect on physical activity. Make sports equipment like jump ropes and balls more accessible. Bicycling, playing sports, and even hopscotch are excellent options that will raise a child’s activity level.

Remember, your children look up to you. Your actions and habits have a lasting effect on their growth. Working together as a family to promote a positive, healthy environment is a win-win situation for all.

For more information contact Dr. Kyla Berreth at Children’s Health Center at 434.799.2111

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