ABCs of a Healthy Lifestyle

It's a family affair

ABCs of a Healthy Lifestyle

Healthy school eating starts at home by packing a nutritious lunch. Exercise is also key to a healthy lifestyle for children.

As the days grow shorter in August, parents and other caregivers are busy preparing children and adolescents, and themselves, for a hassle-free return to school.

In many cases the school routine will be more rigorous than the discipline-relaxed days of summer. Fixed hours, homework, project deadlines, school lunches, and other demands weave themselves into the lives of returning students.

This kind of structure and discipline offers an excellent opportunity to address concerns about weight. Statistics Canada found in 2004 that 18 percent of students aged two to 17 (an estimated 1.1 million) were overweight, and 8 percent (about half a million) were obese—a combined rate of 26 percent.

It seems that BMI, or body mass index, is a better indicator of poor classroom attendance than race, socio-economic status, age, and gender. A study of school attendance of Philadelphia students in grades four, five, and six found that overweight students missed 20 percent more school days than normal-weight students.

Andrew Geier, the leader of the American research team, claims that absenteeism is also related to drug use, HIV, teen pregnancy, not attending college, not graduating from high school, and having a lower income.

In addition, obesity increases the risk of adolescents suffering from type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, bone and joint problems, depression, as well as liver and gallbladder disease.

If you are worried about your child’s weight, your health care practitioner can assess your child’s eating and physical activity habits and make suggestions about how to make positive changes after screening for other possible causes. Chances are your child’s weight problem results from lifestyle. And lifestyles can be modified.

The food they eat

As much as anything, the way we eat models the way our children will eat for the rest of their lives. Sitting down to a regular family meal is not only an excellent way to ensure your child is eating well, but it’s also a great way to spend quality time together.

Even when you’re not eating together, you can adopt other strategies to help your child eat well, including during and after school.

School-time eating

  • Involve students returning to school in planning and preparing healthy meals they enjoy—for breakfasts, school lunches, after-school snacks, and dinners.
  • Shop together so they learn to make good lunch choices—make shopping (and everything else you do toward school preparation) as light and as joyful as possible.
  • Hide a surprise in your child’s lunch kit—a special note, a cute drawing, a funny joke.
  • Pack something special on special days—all red for Valentine’s Day, a fortune cookie for Chinese New Year, or a cupcake for your child’s birthday.
  • Reward success at school with family fun rather than sweets—a family bowling outing, a special movie, a day-trip on your bikes.
  • Practise moderation by allowing sweets and favourite snacks in reasonable amounts.
  • Have healthy after-school snack options available—fruit kabobs, ants on a log, veggie sticks with hummus dip.
  • Encourage your child to drink more water (see below)—pack a reusable water bottle for school and have cold water with lemon slices for after-school snack time.
Water for healthy weight

Although drinking water won’t eliminate obesity, it could increase the rate at which calories are burned and temporarily decrease appetite.

A German study found that students who were encouraged to drink water were 31 percent less likely to be overweight than their counterparts in schools where water consumption wasn’t encouraged.

The way they move

According to a recently released study by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, which was funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, children aged five to 17 need to accumulate at least 60 minutes of exercise a day to be healthy.

Instead of exercising, Canadian students average five to six hours of screen time in front of the TV, computer screen, or on video games during weekdays; this soars to six to seven and a half hours a day on the weekend—a long way from the recommended two hours a day.

If your child is not getting the recommended amount of daily exercise, start gradually, working up toward the 60-minute-a-day minimum, keeping in mind that the activity can be spread throughout the day. Also reduce screen time gradually, working toward the maximum of two hours a day.

To help steer your child toward a healthier lifestyle, you can find physical activity guides for children and youth, developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada, on their website (phac-aspc.gc.ca). Keep in mind that some of the guidelines are under review as new research about minimum activity levels is studied.

Combining fun, exercise, and family

  • Play outside with your children—throw or kick a ball, play badminton, blow some bubbles.
  • Encourage play dates with friends.
  • Take a fun adventure walk or bike ride after supper.
  • Take stairs instead of elevators.
  • Cut the grass and rake the leaves together.
  • Plant some flowers or a small vegetable garden.
  • Dance with your children every chance you get.
  • Create a walking school bus or bicycle train with your neighbours (see below).
  • Leave the car at home; take the bus or walk for short outings.
Getting to school—under their own steam

Many families are getting into the act of moving under their own steam—toward a healthier way to get their children to school. Fuelled by their interest in a greener planet, increased fitness, and a better sense of community, groups all across Canada—and around the world—are organizing walking school buses and bicycle trains for school children.

The concept is pretty simple: find a safe route to walk to school and a group of children who live along this route with enough parents to supervise them safely—and you have a walking school bus.

Customizing the bus into a train is also simple: grab your helmet and your bike and make sure to choose a bicycle-safe route.

These initiatives can be informal, among neighbours and friends, or formal, organized by community groups or schools. Here are some resources for starting your own walking school bus or bicycle train:

Preschooler prep

Children in early grades of primary school may become stressed or even anxious about heading off to school and a new environment without their parents or caregivers—and experiencing their chicks leave the nest is often difficult for parents.

Thoughtful preparation of bambinos for school is an investment for children, parents, and teachers. Diverse socialization, exposure to the future school environment, and playing with future classmates all help to make successful primary students out of preschoolers.

Parents and caregivers can prepare themselves for the inevitable, if that’s possible, by identifying their concerns, talking to others who have made the same journey, and by discovering new distractions to fill the void in their lives. Remember, the chances of a preschooler being calm about starting school increase when parents are also calm.

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