Motivating the Overweight Child

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Motivating overweight kids to exercise starts with their biggest role models: Their parents.

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

It's one of those tricky parental situations. How do you encourage an overweight child to exercise without causing the child to reject exercise altogether as a kind of parent-enforced chore?

It turns out that encouraging a child to exercise doesn't have to be all that tricky. Parents wield a great deal of influence over their child's exercise habits pediatric sports experts say. Believe it or not, your kids look to you as an exercise role model.

"Parents need to be setting a good example," says Paul Ribisl, PhD, a professor in the health and exercise science program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Since exercise is not included in schools, children need to have planned exercise in their life. If they are not involved in youth sport or in an active lifestyle with their friends, then parents should insist on an hour each day of moderate to vigorous activity for both health and prevention of weight gain."

Parents' Attitudes Count

Research studies show that parents' attitudes about exercise and weight loss play important roles in a child's weight-loss effort. At least one parent must participate in the weight-loss process for any hope of long-term success, according to a 1996 study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders.

Another important reason to get the whole family involved is that obesity runs in families: Obese parents tend to have overweight children. For young children if one parent is obese the odds of the child being obese as an adult is threefold, whereas if both parents are obese the odds that that child will be obese as an adult increases to more than tenfold. Although the causes of obesity involve many factors, environment strongly influences the degree of overweight.

Parental involvement has never been more important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 1999 that 15% of American children aged 6 to 19 were overweight, up from 11% from a survey conducted between 1988 and 1994. The prevalence of obesity in our youth varies by sex and ethnic group. The CDC estimates that 5% to 7% of white and black children are obese while 12% of Hispanic boys and 19% of Hispanic girls are obese.

"Parents of overweight, and particularly obese children that are inactive, should have the child

assessed by their pediatrician or a health-care professional before initiating any sport or strenuous exercise or activity," says Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, DrPH, an assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the University of North Texas Health Science Center's school of public health.

Age-appropriate Exercise

Here are some suggestions Ted Ganley, MD, orthopaedic director of sports medicine at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, recommends to make sure your kids exercise safely.

  • Kids' activities need to be right for their age, size, and physical development. Competitive distance running may be great for a high schooler but too stressful -- and not much fun -- for a younger child.
  • Set healthy goals. Competition is fine -- if it isn't overdone. Talk with the people who run your child's school or league team to gauge whether the attitude of coaches fits with your child's abilities.
  • Kids need protective equipment for each sport or activity, including helmets for bikers.
  • See your child's pediatrician if your child is limping after exercise, or if muscle soreness lasts throughout the day or night.
  • Not all exercise is good for kids. Weight training and contact sports are areas where parents should be cautious.

"Weight lifting is not even necessary for children, and certain sports can be detrimental since the bones are not yet fully developed," says Ribisl. "Fractures at a young age complicate normal bone growth."

He adds that overuse sports injury in children is always a problem. Such injuries commonly occur in football, basketball, and baseball -- where children may have problems with the pitching arm. Young tennis players also are prone to overuse injuries such as tennis elbow.

But the fact of the matter is that exercise is only part of the weight-management solution for children.

"The obesity epidemic is not due solely to lack of exercise in children or adults and it is known that the increase in caloric intake is partly responsible as well," says Ribisl. "This increase is due to larger portion sizes of calorically dense foods, and this includes fast foods as well as sugar drinks that are so much a part of the life of children today."

Add Activity to Family Life

In order to stay fit and get help managing your weight, make physical activity part of your family's everyday activity, says Richard Parr, EdD, a professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Rehabilitation at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. His tips include:

  • Buy toys and gifts that promote physical activity.
  • Assign household chores such as yard work, washing the car, leaning house, and snow shoveling -- which count as forms of exercise, too.
  • Encourage job-seeking kids to look for active jobs (bicycle messenger, paper carrier, lawn service).
  • Find fun, physically active ways to celebrate special occasions.
  • Add exercise to weekend plans (hike, fly a kite, swim).
  • Plan one special physical activity event each week for the whole family (walk, hike, bike).

John Casey is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

Published Sept. 22, 2003.

SOURCES: Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, DrPH, assistant professor, department of social and behavioral sciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health, Fort Worth, Texas. Epstein, LH. "Family-based Behavioral Intervention for Obese Children," International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders, February 1996; vol 20: pp S14-S21. Ted Ganley, MD, orthopaedic director, sports medicine, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Paul Ribisl, PhD, professor, health and exercise science program, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C. Richard Parr, EdD, professor, department of health promotion and rehabilitation, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, Mich., adapted from Parr, E. The Physician and Sports Medicine, June 1998; vol 26.

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