Seattle's Child

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Focus on Fitness: Top 10 Tips to Encourage Healthy Habits in Kids

"You are one workout away from a good mood."

Mandy LeBlanc, wellness program manager at Swedish Health Services and volunteer for the American Heart Association, loves this quote. With a young daughter in the picture now, she focuses on ways to get active as a family, hoping the post-exercise-good-mood will be infectious for her child as well.

Helping kids develop healthy habits early in life will bring lifelong benefits. Good habits are a move in the right direction – away from risk factors associated with obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, health conditions that are rising at an alarming rate among kids today.

The American Heart Association recommends that children and adolescents participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. How do you fit that much activity into their busy schedules?

These tips from LeBlanc and the American Heart Association will help you find positive ways to make fitness a family affair.

  1. It's not just the dog that craves a daily walk. Going for a morning or early evening walk allows everyone to leave technology and other sedentary activities behind, get out in the neighborhood and enjoy quality time with each other. "You can jog every other block, play hide-and-go-seek or make it an obstacle course," says LeBlanc, who emphasizes a pragmatic approach. "If you can fit in a 15-minute walk four days a week, consider it a success."

  2. Be realistic. Setting realistic goals and limits are key to adopting any new behavior. Small steps and gradual changes can make a big difference in health over time, so start little and build up.

  3. Infuse fun into weekend routines. Parents usually have errands to run on the weekends, but if you make a stop at the park in between, everyone is happier. "Find several park options and let the kids pick which one you go to so they feel ownership over the field trip," LeBlanc recommends. The reward? You'll be able to get more done at home once everyone has had some freedom, fresh air and fun.

  4. Keep things positive. Just like adults, kids don't find criticism motivating. Focus on recognizing small improvements in skills and "just showing up" for an activity. Keep exercise fun and positive. Celebrating successes will help children and teens develop a good self-image and reinforce new habits.

  5. Make the house your gym. As winter rolls in and it becomes more difficult to get outside, create a fitness area in your house that the whole family can use. You don't have to designate a room or break the budget. "Start simple," says LeBlanc. "Each person could do their age in steps, sit-ups and pushups. Whoever meets their goal gets to put a sticker on the family poster board. At the end of the week, whoever has the most stickers gets to plan Sunday dinner." LeBlanc also suggests jumping jacks, holding a plank position, writing the alphabet with your whole body or just turning up the music to dance!

  6. Be a good role model. You don't have to be perfect all the time, but if your kids see you trying to eat right and get physically active, they'll take notice of your efforts. You'll send a message that good health is impor­tant to your family.

  7. Limit TV, video game and computer time. These habits can lead to a sedentary lifestyle and excessive snacking, which increases the risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease. Limit screen time to two hours per day. On that note, don't reward children with TV, video games, candy or snacks for a job well done. Find healthy ways to celebrate good behavior.

  8. Encourage physical activities that they'll enjoy. Every child is unique. Let your child experiment with different activities until they find something that they really love doing. They'll stick with it longer if they are having fun. Try riding bikes, going swimming, gardening, or enjoy a rousing game of tag or hide-and-seek together.

  9. Don't forget about food. Make dinnertime family time. When everyone sits down together to eat, there is less chance of children eating the wrong foods or snacking too much. Get your kids involved in cooking and planning meals. Make a game of reading food labels so they become more conscious of what they eat.

  10. Stay involved. Be an advocate for healthier children by insisting on good food choices at school as well as quality P.E. programs that get all kids active – not just the athletes – and helps kids discover a sport they enjoy. Make sure your child's healthcare providers are monitoring cardiovascular indicators such as BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol. Make your voice heard on health issues.

The American Heart Association website offers several helpful resources for parents: learn how to make the most of play and find tips on how to help children develop healthy habits and ideas for getting kids active around the house. In addition, a nutrition center offers access to recipes and ideas for healthy shopping and dining out.