Thirty years ago, most people led lives that kept them at a healthy weight. Kids walked to and from school every day, ran around at recess, participated in gym class, and played for hours after school before dinner. Meals were home-cooked with reasonable portion sizes, and there was always a vegetable on the plate. Eating fast food was rare, and snacking between meals was an occasional treat.
Today children experience a very different lifestyle. Walks to and from school have been replaced by car and bus rides. Gym class and after-school sports have been cut; afternoons are now spent with TV, video games, and the internet. Parents are busier than ever, and families eat fewer home-cooked meals. Snacking between meals is now commonplace.
Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack a day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories a day. And one in five school-age children has up to six snacks a day.
Portion sizes have also exploded. They are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past. Beverage portions have grown as well. In the mid-1970s, the average sugar-sweetened beverage was 13.6 ounces. Today, kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time.
In total, we are now eating 31 percent more calories than we were forty years ago, including 56 percent more fats and oils and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners. The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.
Eight- to 18-year-old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including, TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies, and only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.
Now that’s the bad news. The good news is that by making just a few lifestyle changes, we can help our children lead healthier lives—and we already have the tools we need to do it. We just need the will.
Engaging in physical activity as a family can be a fun way to get everyone moving. Studies show that kids who believe they are competent and have the skills to be physically active are more likely to be active. And those who feel supported by friends and families to become active, or surrounded by others interested in physical activity, are more likely to participate.
Children need 60 minutes of play with moderate to vigorous activity every day, but it doesn’t have to occur at once. It all adds up! And remember, sleep is just as important and is an essential part of living an active life. A recent study found that with each extra hour of sleep, the risk of a child being overweight or obese dropped by nine percent.
Here are a few activities and steps that you and your family can consider to get started on a path to a healthier lifestyle:
• Give children toys that encourage physical activity like balls, kites, and jump ropes.
• Encourage children to join a sports team or try a new physical activity.
• Limit TV time and keep the TV out of a child’s bedroom.
• Facilitate a safe walk to and from school a few times a week.
• Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
• Walk around the block after a meal.
• Make a new house rule: no sitting still during television commercials.
• Plan a fun activity: family park day, swim day or bike day.
• Issue a family challenge to see who can be the first to achieve a Presidential Active Lifestyle Award by committing to physical activity five days a week, for six weeks. Adults and children can both receive the award!
• Talk to your children’s principal or write a letter to your district superintendent to incorporate more PE in schools.
• Encourage schools to hold recess prior to lunch to increase physical activity before mealtime.
• Volunteer to help with after-school physical activity programs or sports teams.
Be sure that children get the sleep they need. Most children under age five need to sleep for 11 hours or more per day, children age five to 10 need 10 hours of sleep or more per day, and children over age 10 need at least nine hours per day.