Childhood obesity has become a public health concern in recent years. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 12.5 million children and adolescents are obese. This number accounts for approximately 17% of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 in the United States. Worse, it estimates that the obesity rate among children and adolescents has tripled since 1980.1

Many factors likely play a role in the trend for increasing childhood obesity in the United States. Consumption of fast food and soft drinks, lack of physical activity, watching too much television and playing video games too frequently are all somewhat to blame.

While preaching better nutrition and physical activity to kids is essential, that message will likely prove far more effective if the parents in the United States serve as better examples of good health.

Teach better nutrition

Not only should kids eat healthier foods and drink healthier beverages, they should also learn to make better nutritional choices themselves. Getting rid of junk food and soft drinks can be a good start for a healthier family, but children should learn to choose healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables, and beverages, like water or low-fat milk, on their own.

One idea that parents can consider for instilling proper nutrition involves taking the kids to the grocery store. Walk up and down the aisles and educate them on why certain foods are better choices than others. Then allow them to select some of the foods and drinks themselves. Allow them to select foods for a family meal. If they can bring their own lunches to school, allow them to choose foods for their daily lunches.

Parents should be role models by eating healthier

By teaching nutrition at an early age, it seems likely these youth will make healthier food choices as they get older and more independent.

Limit screen time

The amount of time that kids spend staring at a screen is staggering. When parents consider how much time their children perform these activities, they need to consider more than just television. Screen time really includes computers, video games, movies, and even cell phones.

Kids between the ages of 8 and 18 have been shown to watch television for an average of 4.5 hours per day. When other forms of screen time are included, this average jumps to 7.5 hours per day.2

This screen time can increase the chances that a child becomes obese in three ways. First, some of that 7.5 hours could be spent engaging in regular physical activity. Also kids are likely to snack, especially on junk food, during that television viewing. Finally these young kids will likely see hundreds of advertisements for unhealthy foods and beverages during the television programs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit their children’s total media consumption to no more than one to two hours per day.3 While this guideline is critical for children and adolescents to follow, parents should use it as well. It is hard to preach limits on screen time to kids if the parents come home, sit on the couch, open a bag of chips, and turn on the TV.

Engage the family in physical activity

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that children and adolescents perform at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Most of this activity should be moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity that increases cardiorespiratory fitness. Also, physical activity should incorporate muscle-strengthening activities three times per week. Bone-strengthening activities should be involved three times per week as well.

Get exercise as a family

Parents can play a large role in helping their kids achieve these daily recommendations. They can perform activities as families that involve physical exertion. Jogging, walking, taking bike rides, hiking, walking the dog, and many other activities can be both fun and physically beneficial. Allowing the kids to bring their friends occasionally and letting them pick the activities can keep kids enthusiastic about exercise.

If the children see their parents exercising regularly on their own, they are also more likely to accept it as a normal part of their own lives. Rather than being a sort of punishment, they might look forward to exercising themselves.

Parents should be role models

If parents commit to becoming healthier themselves – making better nutrition choices and performing regular physical activity – their children are much more likely to emulate these behaviors.

Note: This post appears in a modified form as an article I wrote for the Be Active Your Way blog of the Department of Health and Human Services.

1. Cynthia Ogden, Ph.D., and Margaret Carroll, M.S.P.H.
Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, Trends 1963-1965 Through 2007-2008. June 2010.

2. Rideout VJ, Foehr UG, Roberts DF. Generation of M2 Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study; 2010.

3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Public Education. Children, Adolescents, and Television. Pediatrics 2001;107;423.