You can stock your fridge with healthy snacks and set a good example when it comes to exercise, but studies suggest that just like grown-ups, kids need strong internal motivation (not micromanagement) in order to get fit.
"Sometimes we get so serious about obesity prevention, we forget that kids are more likely to do it if they're having fun," says Deanna Hoelscher, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Austin. In fact, researchers across the U.S. are investigating specific strategies that encourage children to get healthy on their own. Four experts offer evidence-backed tips to help kids forge healthy habits.
Let kids in the kitchen
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a $25 million project that, alongside community interventions, aims to train children to improve their health habits by themselves. One tactic teaches elementary school students to prepare simple, healthy snacks. Showing a younger child how to follow uncomplicated recipes builds self-confidence and encourages healthier choices, explains Hoelscher, who is leading part of the CDC project.
Fit tip: Show even very young children how to prepare snacks such as a bowl of non-sugary cereal with berries or a whole-wheat peanut butter sandwich with carrot sticks. Keep supplies on low shelves so kids don't have to ask for help.
Take it step by step
A University of Missouri campaign gave pedometers to fifth-graders in an effort to teach them to create and meet their own health goals. After a year, the students were more confident in their ability to cut back on TV, drink less soda and exercise every day, according to a study in the Journal of Extension. The project focused on self-efficacy and, on their own, some of the students ended up protesting the unhealthy foods in their cafeteria. Pedometers make it easy for children to see and measure results, says study author Stephen Ball, an associate professor of exercise physiology.
Fit tip: Ball suggests that parents buy a pedometer for themselves and commit to the same routine as their kids. "If they see that parents and teachers value something, the kids will start to value it, too," he explains.
Resist being a helicopter parent
Children who had a parent close by on a playground got less exercise than kids whose parents were supervising from afar, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Parental worries about safety may be stifling play, says study author Jason Bocarro, an associate professor at North Carolina State University.
Fit tip: Choose a park with shady, comfortable seating for parents and safe, open play spaces for the kids to promote vigorous activity such as running. To spur older kids to become active, find a location with structured recreational facilities, such as basketball courts and swimming pools, Bocarro suggests.
Tap into peer power
When college students mentored teens about healthful habits, the high-schoolers cut their weekly soda consumption and reported that they were more physically active than the year before. Especially for girls, peer mentors were more helpful than regular health classes at promoting beneficial behaviors, a study in the journal Childhood Obesity found. The next step will be to discover why boys were less helped than girls, says study author John Cawley, a professor of health economics at Cornell University.
Fit tip: The adolescents in this study were more likely to adopt good habits when they saw a respected peer making smart choices. So enlist a slightly older relative or friend to join your teen for health-boosting activities.
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