Inspire Kids to Make Healthy Choices

Fitness mentors and healthy role models can improve your child's health.

Kids running in school gym
Alistair Berg / Getty Images

Our kids tend to do as we do, not as we say. So it's important to show them what healthy choices look like, in addition to telling them. Here's how the behavior of influencers and role models can motivate your child to be more active and make smarter decisions and fitness, nutrition, and health.

Parents and Siblings

For every extra minute moms are active, their preschoolers are 10% more active--and this effect is more pronounced on weekends.

Researchers in the United Kingdom studied over 500 four-year-olds and their mothers by having them wear accelerometers night and day for a week. The devices measured how much time children spent being sedentary, in light physical activity, and in moderate to vigorous physical activity. Their findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

And while there was no data collected for dads or siblings, "both parents being active may have a greater effect on their child's activity than the sum of their individual parts," the study says, and so "active siblings may further encourage activity in young children." Interestingly, the researchers also noted that kids might also be able to influence moms to move more, too.

Peers and Friends

My kids' school has a "reading buddies" program, in which fourth- and fifth-graders read with, and to, younger students. It's beneficial for both groups, the mentors and the mentored, and the kids love it.

So it's not surprising that a "Healthy Buddies" program can deliver big benefits too. A group of doctors, researchers, and public health experts in Manitoba, Canada, studied the effectiveness of this peer-to-peer wellness program for kids at 19 elementary schools. Nine- to 12-year-old students delivered Healthy Buddies lessons to six- to eight-year-old peers; the lessons covered physical activity, healthy eating, and self-esteem and body image.

At the end of the study period, kids who had buddies showed a significant decline in waist circumference—with the biggest reduction coming in younger kids and those who started out overweight or obese. "Self-efficacy, healthy living knowledge, and dietary intake significantly improved in younger peers who received the intervention compared with students from control schools," the researchers reported in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

"Schools are a great place to promote healthy living behaviors in children. The results of this trial highlight the untapped strengths that our youth possess," said Jonathan McGavock, a research scientist at the University of Manitoba who co-authored the study. If your child's school has a wellness committee, this might be a great program for it to consider.

Teachers and Schools

Kids spend a lot of time in school, which means lots of opportunities to learn about healthy choices. Along with programs like Healthy Buddies, school-aged kids can gain a great deal from enhanced, high-quality physical education (with well-trained teachers), activity breaks with their classroom teachers, sufficient recess time, activity sessions before and/or after school, and walking to and from school.

Similarly, preschoolers get lasting benefits when they have ample outdoor time (and indoor active time), active toys like balls and tricycles, and teachers who are trained in encouraging physical activity and incorporating it into other learning activities.

Sources:

Hesketh KR, Goodfellow L, et al. Activity levels in mothers and their preschool children. Pediatrics Vol 133, No 4, April 2014.

Santos RG, Durksen A, et al. Effectiveness of peer-based healthy living lesson plans on anthropometric measures and physical activity in elementary school students. JAMA Pediatrics Vol 168, No 4, April 2014.

President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Physical activity guidelines midcourse report: Strategies to increase physical activity among youth. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, December 2012.

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