There was a time when kids spent the afternoon chasing each other round the garden, playing hide-and-seek or practising their soccer skills. Nowadays, they’re more likely to spend their leisure hours in front of a screen.
And it shows. According to research by the Heart & Stroke Foundation, half of all South Africans aged 15 years and older are classified as obese. Added to this, medicalacademic.co.za states that 20% of girls younger than nine are obese. Compare this with 1980, when just 7% of girls were obese. Further research cited on discovery.co.za reports that almost two in every 10 children is either overweight or obese.
A quick look at our lifestyles explains this rapid trajectory. Our children aren’t cycling or walking to school any more, their snacks and meals consist of heavily processed foods which add to the sugar they already consume in large amounts and their activities are far less physical than they were just a few years ago.
Small wonder, then, that the Healthy Active Kids SA Report Card 2016 noted: “With overweight and obesity levels continuing to rise among South African children, this has become a major public health concern.”
One of the recommendations made by the report is to increase physical activity. The question facing many parents, though, is how to do this.
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For Dr Deepak Patel, a principal clinical specialist and Head of Research at Vitality SA, the answer lies in instilling good habits from an early age. “Many of the factors that lead to obesity are habit-based,” he explains. These aren’t always obvious: for instance, you might think of your tendency to serve dinner in front of TV in terms of convenience, but in later years, this might translate into TV becoming a trigger for overeating – much like a ‘Pavlov’s dog; response. However, just as parents can unwittingly lay the foundation for bad habits, they can also foster good ones, including cultivating a love of physical activity in their offspring.
Doing this ensures that your children get the daily hour of moderate or vigorous aerobic physical activity they need to keep fitness levels where they should be. This should be supplemented by muscle- and bone-strengthening activities a further three times a week.
Of course, keeping track of this isn’t as easy for kids as it might be for you. After all, it’s not as if they’re logging the number of kilometres they’ve run or counting the yoga classes they’ve attended.
So, how can you get them off the couch and on their feet?
- Make life active. Patel points out that we tend to associate physical activity with sport, but this needn’t be the case. Doing housework counts as keeping active.
- Make playtime active. For example, take your kids to the park or suggest a family tennis match.
- Build exercise into your family routine. Your family has a set schedule that makes every day run more smoothly. Try to incorporate more activities which count as kilojoule-burners, such as walking the dog together. Instead of going out for lunch, take a family hike that ends in a picnic. If these become an entrenched part of family life, they’re difficult to discard – especially if you up the pleasure factor: use the walking time to have family discussions, play word games or have quizzes.
- Make it fun. Dancing around the kitchen to Beyoncé counts as exercise. So does splashing around in the pool.
- Don’t be lazy. Instead of using the car to do a chore (like popping into the local supermarket to pick up milk), walk there.
- Cut down on screen time. The Healthy Active Kids Report states that screen time is one of the biggest threats to physical activity. South African children spend about two hours a day staring at screens, in addition to all the time they spend sitting in classrooms or doing homework in their bedrooms.
- Be a role model. When your children see that you take your health seriously, they’ll be inspired to follow your lead.
- Invite them to join you. Encourage them to join you on the golf course, at the gym or at Pilates.