There was this photo in my Biology class in secondary school which showed two young girls. One of them was lean. The other had plump cheeks; two-thirds of the photo was full of her. The caption below the photo referred to the second girl as “well-fed”. And here’s the error, for the “well-fed” child was clearly obese.
Obesity is a heavy burden to carry. An obese child may be short of breath, tires easily, and sweats heavily. Observe your child while he sleeps. If he gasps or snorts while sleeping, and consistently wakes up feeling tired in the morning despite going to bed early, he might be having sleep apnea, a possible outcome related to childhood obesity (1).
In the longer run, an obese child is likely to grow into an unhappy adult beset with diabetes, high blood pressure, and liver and cardiovascular diseases which may be compounded by low confidence if nothing is done to intervene the obese pathway he or she is walking on now (2).
Imagine your son or daughter at seventy. What kind of life would you wish for him or her? Would you rather your adult child be someone who has to worry about how he’ll afford the next medical prescription, or would you rather he be someone who’s productive, healthy and happy at that age?
Here’s the good news: Family based interventions have been shown to make a significant impact on children’s weight loss both in the short and long term. With healthy life choices instilled early, carried through adolescence, and maintained in adult life, your child does not have to bear the burdens of preventable, non-communicable ailments (3).
As parents, we desire to give the best to our children: the best home, the best school, holidays, extra tuition if they need it – even if it means giving up certain comforts that we wish to have for ourselves. All we need to do is to ensure this noble desire encompasses lifelong well-being related to health for our children.
What are your expectations concerning health and ageing?
Your expectations for your children are coloured by your biases tied to human health and well-being. Do you believe it is possible to stay hale and hearty so long as you take good care of yourself? If you find yourself thinking, “No matter what I do, I’m not going to stay healthy forever. Humans are meant to get ill eventually”, it means you see ageing tied to feebleness and illness – chances are you won’t even consider doing anything different.
I used to be guilty of the same, partly because of what I saw around me: elderly folk who often complained about their ailing bodies, and the medications that they lived by. Until I heard of men and women who proved it’s possible to stay robust well into their golden years. These men and women are not the majority but suffice to say, they choose to challenge the stereotype of feebleness with age by leading a physically active lifestyle.
Consider 91-year-old Takishima Mika (“Takimika”), who only started exercising at the age of 65. At that point, she had gained so much weight that she had to wear trousers twice her original petite size. Her husband’s comment about her weight pushed her to do something. Today, she walks 4 km daily, and has been promoted to fitness trainer at the age of 87 (4).
Do it for the right reasons.
The goal of keeping fit is to lead a healthy, happy and successful life. Period. It’s not about having a svelte figure or looks that kill. It’s about your child feeling sprightly all his life. A person who is healthy looks good even in pajamas!
The message you send to your child about keeping fit is important. Noble intentions do not justify unwise ways. Some parents put their daughters especially under pressure “to be slender so that you become more attractive to suitors”. What happens if that figure is lost after childbirth?
Avoid harsh criticism.
I have heard a mother openly admonishing her daughter for taking another helping in a neighbourhood gathering, labeling her “fat”. If you happen to have a child who is overweight, no matter how desperate you are in wanting him or her to lose weight, harsh criticism is not an effective way. For all you know, the shamed child might just decide to gobble even more food just to spite you.
Besides, about the only thing you’ll gain by throwing off-handed and unkind remarks to your child is a strained relationship. Not a good idea, especially in the teenage years, when a strong parent-child relationship helps grow the confidence and emotional stability of your child.
Consume Less. Move More.
What truly is the root cause of obesity? Although some quarters blame it on lifestyle, to me it boils down to two key words: consumption and movement. The more calories you consume and the less you move most of the time, the more obese you become.
The phrase “most of time” suggests habit. My late father had a very healthy appetite whenever his children and grandchildren visited; he would have an extra helping of rice and its accompaniments. But this wasn’t an everyday affair. On most days he’s alone with my mother, he would consume much less. He never owned a car. There was this rickety old bike he used to get anywhere for years until he bought a motorcycle. Throughout his life, he remained as lean as ever.
To walk away from obesity, you’d need to consume less calories and move more. It’s the calories that gives the energy for the body to burn. If your child consumes a balanced meal regularly (enough carbohydrates, proteins, and vegetables/fruits), he would still have all the energy he needs to do well the entire day. Water is a better option than sugary beverages which contain lots of calories but very little to no nutritional value.
Don’t let homework scuttle your child’s need to be physically active.
Humans are born to move. By the time we hit toddlerhood, we stretch, kick, walk, run, climb, fall, pick ourselves up, and do it all over again. We slow down once school starts, spending much time sitting within a formal instructional learning setup i.e. the classroom.
Here begins a remarkable change.
Discerning parents insist their children to go out after school and have some kind of physical activity, even if it means the only thing these children do is to cycle, climb the monkey bars or run on the field.
Some parents begin to worry so much about school work that they don’t see a problem if their children do not expend any time outdoors as long as homework is finished. Yet, scientists have discovered a direct link between physical fitness and children’s brain development. Meaning, children who spent enough time exercising are smarter than those who don’t. In a study of 9- and 10-year-olds, those who were more fit were found to have a bigger hippocampus in their brain and did better in memory tests (5).
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be boring. It can be upsetting when a child refuses to consume what might have taken some time for you to prepare. Smart is the parent who consistently says, “Eat what’s there.” Eventually, children will eat what is served, once they are hungry enough, even if they refused it initially. Every now and then, though, it would be nice for you and your child to hunt for recipes that you can prepare, get excited with, and enjoy eating together.
I see, I eat. Come up with practical ideas how to capture your child’s attention to better foods e.g. place them at your child’s eye-level.
Going to extremes is not a good idea. If you come from a family who loves food especially the traditional kind which is delectable but not so healthy, and your child loves them, before you decide to banish these dishes completely, remember that these are part of your son or daughter’s heritage. By all means please do whip them up, but cook less and not too often.
Serve smaller, sensible portions. Encourage your child to eat slowly, instead of gobbling their food, so meal time is not just about eating but connecting with the family too.
Much focus is given to emotional health among children, understandably so, as evidence shows a clear decline in public mental health, particularly among children and adolescents (6), (7). I daresay the physical health of our children deserves as much attention, as it has far-reaching consequences on our sons and daughters, mental health included.
Studies have shown that physical activity does boost the mental health of children and adolescents. Regular exercise helps children to feel good about themselves, reduces stress and depressive symptoms, increases confidence and overall cognitive development in our young ones in later life (8).
In developed countries, city planners make sure there’s sufficient green space for the young and old to roam about. In developing countries, it’s common to see high rises with a tiny playground tucked somewhere in a corner. One wonders how a cramped space can fit so many growing families in such neighbourhoods.
We teach our children to work hard so they could sit back during their sunset years. But if we fail to teach them to care for their physical health, much of their hard-earned savings throughout the years would go to paying for medications and treatments which could have been sidestepped had they led a healthier life. Have we done enough? Understand what the human mind and body need to stay truly healthy. The human body is a unique machine; use it or lose it. Both brain and brawn are likely to stay supple so long as it gets the challenge it needs, consistently. Ask yourself: What can you do now such that staying fit becomes an important goal in your child’s life?
Featured Image: Sides Imagery
(3) Berge JM, Everts JC. Family-based interventions targeting childhood obesity: A meta-analysis. Child Obes. 2011;7:110–21.
(5) University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Children’s brain development is linked to physical fitness, research finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100915171536.htm>