In the simplest terms, the amount of energy in (calories consumed) minus calories out (calories expended or burned) determines weight. The term calorie refers to the energy contained in a particular food. If more calories are consumed than are burned, the positive energy balance means that weight is gained. A negative energy balance (more calories burned than consumed) leads to weight loss.
The balance is a little more complex in children than in adults. To grow and develop normally, children must gain weight. However, our kids are significantly less active and eat food much higher in fat and sugar (calories) compared to children in the past. Eating too much junk or fast food leads to a large positive energy balance. For many children, the result is excess fat.
Calorie intake in childhood and adolescence affects the actual number of fat cells in the body. This means obese children often become obese adults, despite attempts at weight loss later in life.
Obesity affects not only children, but society as a whole. An overweight, inactive child becomes an overweight, inactive adult prone to health problems. High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease and reduced self-esteem are all linked to excess weight.
Inactive lifestyles cost us billions of dollars in health care bills. The costs are expected to skyrocket, placing further strain on an already-stressed health care system.
Why aren’t our children as physically active? Television, video games and the Internet are often blamed for the drop in physical activity. Each week, the average Canadian child spends 26 hours watching TV, and less than three hours being physically active. Electronic gadgets, such as cell phones and tablets, allow kids to live a virtual life – especially if these devices are used as babysitters. Many parents do not realize how little exercise their children get.
As well, more people now live in cities and use labour-saving devices. Compared to a rural setting, physical chores largely do not exist. Children (and their parents) must choose to be active, instead of having exercise included as a regular part of the day. Often, this means organized physical activity. Less time is allowed for physical education in school as well. Canadian schools only average about 60 minutes of physical education per week.
Most parents can remember spending a great deal of time playing outside as kids.
Neighbourhoods were seen as safe places. In comparison, today’s children are housebound. Parents feel they must keep their kids within eyesight. For many children, being without a caregiver or parent on the playground or the school field is not an option.
The family itself has changed dramatically. Many households have two working parents, and there are more single parents than in the past. Life has become very hectic. Parents spend a lot of time driving kids to activities. Fast food may be the easiest way to fit in meals. Neither parent nor child can be active while in the car.
Too many calories
The number of calories consumed also plays a role. Not only is fast food high in fat, it is limited in nutritional value. Food that is not high in fat is often high in simple sugars. The term ‘empty calories’ describes food high in simple sugars, but with little or no nutritional value in the form of vitamins or minerals. Statistics Canada estimates that children between the ages of nine and 13 consume over 100 pounds of sugar a year.
Children and adults are bombarded by fast food and snack food advertising on television, in magazines, on billboards, and even in school. The multi-billion dollar advertising industry aims to sell as much as possible, even when the consumers are children.
Children age five to 11 should get periods of moderate to vigorous physical activity that add up at least 60 minutes each day. This should include:
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Exercises in general should involve more than one joint (multi-joint) as these types of exercise replicate normal movement patterns. The number of repetitions for children should be high (12 to 15) with two to three sets per exercise. The exercise should stop if the child is not able to maintain proper form as this can lead to injury (excessive straining and loss of fluid motion during the exercise are good indications of this).
The good old push-up still remains a useful upper body strengthening exercise for children. It can be done either with the knees on the ground or with the toes on the ground. The number of push-ups a child can do will vary greatly. Upper body strengthening exercise is particularly important for girls as research as shown their upper body strength is significantly lower than boys per kg of fat-free mass. (Girls have about the same lower body strength as boys per kg of fat-free mass).
Both squats and lunges are great multi-joint exercises for children. They are easy to do and hand-held weights can be used to continue to build strength once a child is able to do 12 to 15 squat or lunges times three sets with relative ease using just body weight.
Children are not the only Canadians who lack exercise and healthy eating habits. Many adults also have inactive lifestyles and diets high in fat and energy. Two facts are well recognized:
Here are a few simple suggestions that can go a long way to help children live healthy lives.
Although making healthy choices takes some time and thought, consider it an investment in your child’s future. The habits you establish now will last a lifetime.