Let's Move: Curing the Couch Potato

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Between the Internet, video games, DVDs, and the old fashion telephone, kids are evolving into American's most common vegetable: The Couch Potato. We welcomed Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH, on Sept. 28, 2004, to chat about how to get our kids motivated to move!

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Dr. McAllister, why do we have so many couch potatoes today? And so many start so young -- tater tots, if you will! When and why did we stop moving?

One of the reasons that children find it harder to get up and get moving is that there are so many temptations indoors, especially in terms of electronic gadgets and devices. Kids are surrounded by video games, televisions, and computers, and to many children, these devices are far more appealing than spending time outdoors in active play.

Unfortunately, the days of mothers and fathers sending their children out to play unsupervised are largely over in many areas of the country.

Now parents may feel they need to accompany their children when they go outside, and sometimes this can prove to be a barrier to children's activity. Parents may have to be more creative in designing activities for their children when they aren't able to supervise them.

With the incredible time crunch most kids face, where do we even start to get them more exercise?

Remember, exercise can be relaxing and energizing form of down time. So maybe try gradually weaning your children off of television and at the same time gradually introducing some form of fun, non-threatening physical activity. It is extremely difficult to make time for physical activity for busy families, but it is also extremely important.

Kids need to be active every single day, far more than they need to sit in front of the television. Anything that parents can do to get their kids up and moving is a tremendous investment in their children's present and future health.

Is getting a teen off the couch and onto a treadmill while watching her favorite junk TV a start or a cop-out?

No, that's a brilliant idea. My children go to a local YMCA where they have to pedal a stationary bicycle to play a video game. Since that's the only time they get to play video games, they cycle their little hearts out. They love it. I don't think it's a cop-out, I think it's just a tremendous lure to get children to exercise more.

"We may have to be our children's phys-ed coaches until the schools take a more active role in promoting physical fitness for our kids."

Our schools are strapped financially, so PE is being cut. Do you think this contributes to our children becoming more obese? What can we do?

It definitely contributes to childhood obesity, and unfortunately, it is becoming more commonplace in the United States.

Recesses and physical education classes are being cut more with each passing decade as educators place more emphasis on academic scores and less on physical fitness. Parents can help turn this trend around by getting involved with parent/teacher associations.

In the meantime, we as parents have to make sure that just because our children aren't exercising at school that they are not losing out on the benefits of physical fitness. We may have to be our children's phys-ed coaches until the schools take a more active role in promoting physical fitness for our kids.

Even in schools with recess and PE, children are not permitted or encouraged to engage in spontaneous running, jumping, and playing as they once were.

We, as a nation, have become obsessed with preventing injuries and avoiding lawsuits. Again, if your children aren't moving and playing as much as they need to at school, you may have to step in and make sure that they enjoy these activities at home.

What do you recommend as family activities that can promote movement and giggles?

The most important aspect of any fitness activity is fun. If it isn't fun, kids won't want to join in.

Exercise doesn't have to be a ritual or a routine. In fact, the more spontaneous and the more it fits into your everyday life, the better. Ask your kids what they like to do for fitness fun. Maybe they like to dance. It's a lot of fun when parents show their children the dances that they did in their youth, and that's always good for a few laughs.

Other things that families can enjoy together are:

  • Walks around the block or in the park

  • A window shopping spree at the mall that involves brisk walking and no buying

  • Hiking

  • Biking

And it's always a good idea to let kids take turns planning various fun fitness outings for the whole family, like a game of Frisbee.

What are reasonable limits on TV and computer time?

Most physicians and experts recommend children get no more than two hours of television and computer time per day. If you think about it, that is really quite a lot.

The first step in reducing your child's TV and computer time is to set reasonable limits. Sit down and talk to your child and explain why you feel strongly about limiting their television time. You might want to sit down with your child at the beginning of the week and allow him or her to choose the programs that he or she would like to see the most.

Allow your child to budget television time so that the child doesn't end up sitting mindlessly in front of the television for hours at a time. Another way to limit television and computer time is to buy a device that automatically turns off electronic devices like television or the computer when the child's allotted time is up. That way, the device is the bad guy and the parent is not.

Usually kids are more than happy to give up TV and computer time when they have something else to do that is reasonably entertaining.

What do you think of TVs in bedrooms?

Studies have shown that children with televisions or computers in their bedrooms spend far more time watching TV or playing computer games than children who do not have these things in their bedrooms.

If your child has a bedroom television or computer, it's a good idea to move it out and explain to your child that you are not punishing him or her, you are merely acting in his or her best interests.

Simply taking these things out of a child's bedroom will significantly reduce the amount of time the child spends in sedentary pursuits and hopefully allow him or her to be more active.

How do we find a balance when we're trying to involve our kids in organized sports -- not too much, not too little?

It is usually best to allow your child to pick one sport per season that he or she really enjoys and then stick with that instead of trying to do too much.

Participating in organized sports is not necessarily the best way for your child to become physically fit, especially if your child is not all that crazy about the sport in the first place. There are lots of activities kids can enjoy individually that are just as good for them as team sports. Your child may enjoy martial arts, ballet, or even jumping rope at home, more than an organized sport.

Encourage children to participate in activities they can continue to enjoy for a lifetime and activities they can do alone. For instance, kids may not be able to participate in a baseball game three times a week as adults, but they can continue to swim, jog, or ride bikes for the rest of their lives.

"Most physicians and experts recommend children get no more than two hours of television and computer time per day. If you think about it, that is really quite a lot."

What does your family do for fun and fitness?

We go to the YMCA a lot. We run in fun runs and fun walks. During the winter it's easier to participate in indoor activities and that's why our local fitness club is such a big part of our lives. We can swim, participate in aerobics classes, or jog around the indoor track. In the summer we like to stay outside and swim, ride bikes, or ride our horses.

Is weight training safe for teens, boys, and girls?

Yes, it is. Not too long ago, experts considered resistance training dangerous for children. Now we know that even young children can safely perform resistance training as long as they are supervised and lifting weights that are appropriate for their strength and maturity level.

Resistance training with weights has been shown to increase metabolic rate and thereby speed weight loss. It's also excellent for children in terms of building their self-esteem and self-confidence. So resistance training can be an important part of any child's physical fitness program.

Are there any changes we should make in foods offered if our kids are becoming more active?

It's an excellent time to cut down on fatty foods and sugary foods, both of which can give children upset stomachs if they're eaten too close to exercise time.

Kids who are very active can benefit from adding a few extra complex carbohydrates, which can be found in whole grain foods, legumes, and some vegetables. These foods give kids an energy boost they will need as they become increasingly active without contributing a lot of fat and sugar to their diets.

As kids become more active, they may actually be hungrier, and it's OK to allow them to eat as long as they are making nutritious choices.

Both of my children and I are overweight. How many calories a day should children between the ages of 11 and 14 eat? I'm planning on using M.J. Smith's book 60 Days of Low-Fat, Low-Cost Meals in Minutes as a guide to get us started.

The typical caloric requirements for children and adolescents are listed on the main WebMD university web page. It is important to check with your child's pediatrician to make sure your child is getting the appropriate number of calories per day.

If your child is eating too much food, one of the best things you can do to help him lose weight is to simply start cutting back about 500 calories per day. Simply reducing your child's caloric intake by 500 calories a day will result in a weight loss of about one pound per week.

If you think about it, there are 52 weeks in a year, so a weight loss of one pound per week is really quite impressive. In addition, a weight loss of one pound per week is safe and more likely to be permanent than weight that is rapidly lost.

What's the key to getting kids to buy into the idea of exercise that isn't a chore?

Make it as fun as possible. Ask your child what he or she would really enjoy doing for a fitness activity. The answer might surprise you.

Sometimes the activities that our children choose require a little work on the part of the parents. We may end up having to take our children to a skating rink or a hiking trail or a gymnasium or a bowling alley. Sometimes it is necessary for parents to provide the means for the end. We have to give our children ways to succeed and make it very difficult for them to fail.

Very few kids will turn off the television to go outside and jog around the block. They may need a little more entertainment than that, and this is something that parents can help provide. It takes a little extra time and effort, but it's definitely worth it.

Involve your children and create an action plan for fitness as a family. This involves getting everyone's input and trying to accommodate the wishes and needs of each family member.

Start by planning your weekends and days off around fitness fun. Make an exercise schedule. Plan an activity once or twice a week that you and your kids will enjoy doing. If you set aside 15 to 20 minutes just for exercise, you're more likely to do it.

If you can't work fitness in on weekdays when you're busy with school and work, the weekends may be wide open. You can:

  • Plan a bike ride.

  • Take an invigorating hike along nature trails.

  • Pack a picnic lunch and head to the park for a game of Frisbee.

  • Make use of community resources -- most communities have fun, free fitness activities for the whole family.

Start with your local YMCA or parks and recreation department. Get the whole neighborhood involved by organizing softball games, soccer matches, and jump rope contests. These are inexpensive and fun for kids and their parents.

And if you have a bookworm who would rather read than walk, try to create a themed walk, whether it's walking in the woods for a nature scavenger hunt or pretending to be somewhere else -- the locale of a favorite story.

"Simply reducing your child's caloric intake by 500 calories a day will result in a weight loss of about one pound per week."

What kind of fitness plan is a pediatrician likely to propose for an overweight preteen? Who else might be good to visit for some one-on-one advice and planning?

These days, more personal trainers and other fitness experts are trained to help children get in shape.

The rule of thumb with an overweight child is to start low and go slow, no matter which activity you choose for her to participate in. Don't expect too much in the early stages, as kids gain stamina, strength, and self-confidence, they will surprise themselves and their parents with their commitment to fitness.

If you are looking for a little guidance, check your newspaper for local youth-oriented fitness classes and activities. Or ask your child's physical education teacher what resources and experts are available in your community.

In the meantime, walking is an excellent exercise for overweight children and has very low risk for injury and is surprisingly beneficial in terms of increasing fitness and promoting weight loss.

Dr. McAllister, do you have any final words for us?

As parents, the most important thing we can do to promote fitness in our children is to make it fun.

Kids will gladly participate in exercise as long as they enjoy doing it. If it's a drudgery, they would rather sit in front of the television or play computer games. Most kids love it when their parents get involved in active play with them.

Getting involved in fitness activities also sets a good example for your child. When parents teach their children about the joys of active play and fitness, the whole family benefits.

Thanks to Rallie McAllister, MD, for sharing her tips and great ideas with us today. For more information, please read her book, The Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.

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