When Angie Kolen’s two children were young, she developed a concrete plan to ensure they got enough exercise. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the Saskatchewan mom would take her kids and two of their friends to the pool, rink, or park for an hour and a half of vigorous play.
At the time, Kolen was working on her doctorate in kinesiology and child development. Today, as a member of the faculty at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, she conducts research on the incredibly important role that parents play in helping children develop healthy habits for life.
“When you think about what you need to do to raise healthy kids, it’s important to realize that kids really do look up to their parents,” says Kolen. “If physical activity and healthy eating are part of a parent’s life, that’s what they’re going to do too. Of course, it seems so simple but you have to make a conscious effort.”
Here’s what Kolen and others have learned about how to raise healthy kids.
Healthy Kids Start With Healthy Parents
Set a good example. Children, and in particular very young children, model their parents’ behavior. The Framingham Children’s Study was one of the first to document this correlation with the finding that four- to seven-year-old children of active mothers are twice as likely to be active as those whose mothers are sedentary. That same study also found that children whose mothers and fathers are active are almost six times as likely to be active as children of sedentary parents.
Track your activity—and your kids’. You’re probably not as active as you think you are—and neither are your children. In one study, researchers found that men overestimated the amount of activity they did per week by 56 minutes, while women overestimated by 52 minutes. Likewise, most parents miscalculate their children’s activity levels, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. While 80 percent of parents said their adolescent children were getting adequate physical activity, almost 40 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys were getting less than an hour a day of exercise. With a Fitbit Ace and a Fitbit family account (coming soon), you’ll be able to see how your family’s activity levels stack up. Learn more.
Avoid “helicopter parenting.” It’s counterintuitive but true: Parents who are overly involved in their kids’ lives—arranging playdates, shuttling them from one activity to the next—may actually be contributing to unhealthy behaviors, according to a study in Preventive Medicine. That’s because what kids—and particularly young children—really need is the time and space to go outside, run around, and be with friends in unstructured play time, say researchers.
Realize sports aren’t always the solution. In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, Kolen and one of her graduate students found that kids who were involved in sports didn’t get more exercise than other kids, in part because they were sedentary the rest of the day but also because a significant amount of time during practice is spent on instructions and strategy. “An hour sports practice might translate into a half hour of actual exercise, so we need to make sure they’re getting activity elsewhere,” says Kolen.
Involve kids in meal prep. Kids learn by doing and that’s especially true when it comes to making healthy food choices. “We don’t want them to get cut with knives, but almost every child can participate in healthy meal preparation,” says Kolen. Research also shows that eating dinner together as a family encourages healthy eating, but that parents who restrict their children’s food intake ultimately hurt their kids’ ability to make their own healthy choices. Give this kid-friendly meal plan a shot.
Engage in a little parent-child competition. “Have a contest to see who gets the most steps in a day,” says Kolen, whose studies often involve parents and child activity trackers. “Go for a hike together and see how many steps each of you take. If you want to make it even more fun, see who eats the most fruits and vegetables in a day too.” Group challenges, like Family Faceoff (coming soon), will make this easy within the upcoming Fitbit family account.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.