As we settle into fall, there’s no better time to establish health and wellness habits for your family. For children and adolescents to learn and develop to their full potential, it is important that they establish healthy eating, exercise and sleep habits from an early age. Maintaining a healthy weight throughout their young years will significantly increase your child’s chances of being a healthy adult.
Parents can, and should, engage in these habits too. The best predictor of a child’s eating behaviors is the eating patterns of their parents. This gives parents an amazing opportunity to provide a solid foundation of healthy eating for their kids, and also for themselves.
Getting kids to consistently eat a nutritious diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables and less junk food is a challenge, but it is not impossible. One of the first tricks to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables is to start as early in life as possible. Toddlers and preschoolers can be given cut up vegetables and fruits, for both school and at-home snacks, instead of pre-packaged cookies and chips.
Another great way to keep fruits and vegetables in the daily diet is to get kids involved in meal preparation. This includes going to the grocery store and helping out with the items purchased. The produce section offers great teachable moments as kids learn about the variety of fruits and vegetables available, especially in South Florida. During meal preparation, let the kids get hands-on with cleaning, prepping and, if they’re old enough, cooking the vegetables. Encourage your kids to sample their produce choices.
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Being physically active and making fitness a family priority from early childhood can also build a foundation for being active as an adult. Our research among children of all ages shows that not only does regular exercise and activity increase physical and cardiovascular health, it can improve sleep; reduce stress, depression, anxiety and illness; increase attention, learning and school performance; and maintain a healthy weight.
A good cardiovascular workout stimulates the brain to release endorphins, the body’s “feel good” natural opiates, giving an extra kick of energy and a dose of euphoria after each workout. So, instead of thinking of physical activity as making you feel tired, think of it as a way to give you increased energy and a mood lift all in one. It’s the gift that keeps on giving at any age.
Our experts have learned through years of operating a program with the Miami-Dade County Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces that to instill a love of physical activity during childhood, every program must include the ‘f’ word: FUN. The best way to turn children off from adopting daily physical activity as a lifetime habit is to make it regimented and boring. Children by nature love to move.
Have you ever seen a toddler who has learned to walk not want to get up and move, run, climb, explore? As children develop, this innate need transforms into such games and activities as tag, hide-and-seek, dodge ball, capture the flag and kick ball. In adolescence these games may transform into competitive or non-competitive structured sports programs, dance, martial arts and other activities.
Finally, establishing good sleep habits is critical for your child’s growth and development, as well as their physical and mental health. As a nation, we are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep is the only time our brains and bodies recover from the day’s stresses. Several hunger hormones are also stimulated when we lose just one night’s sleep, increasing our chances to overeat the next day and crave sugar and simple carbohydrates. So, turn off the screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime and instead dive into a good book. Try to get to bed and rise at the same time every day so your body gets used to a set routine.
To kick-start a healthy new routine for your family:
1. Eat a nutritious breakfast every day and keep fruits and vegetables available for snacks.
2. Help your children be active during non-school hours.
3. Establish a set bedtime routine for all school nights.
These three steps can be more easily accomplished with help from outside programs. For example, Miami-Dade County public schools offer free breakfasts for children, and there are a number of community-based programs for after-school activities. Your leadership and these programs can be the start of a healthy new lifestyle for you and your family. After all, you are your child’s first healthy lifestyle role model.
Sarah E. Messiah, Ph.D., MPH, is a pediatric epidemiologist at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.