How Parents Can Help Their Overweight Kids Get Fit

Last week, a mother asked me for advice regarding her overweight nine-year old son. Not only was she concerned for his physical health but also she was worried about his psychological well-being. The boy was getting depressed about his growing waistline and she would catch him holding the fat around his belly and sighing. Poor kid! It can be tough to be an overweight and out-of-shape child. Many adults tell me how much psychological suffering they went through as overweight children.

The mother told me that her son did not want to join any sports and many times did not want to play with other children if it involved prolonged physical activity. She also said that he had a tendency to eat more when he was upset or depressed.

This mother was right to be concerned about her son’s problem. Diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes all have their roots in childhood. In one study, 40% of the children (ages five to eight) had high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels. Childhood is the time to instill good eating and exercise habits. It becomes much harder to make lifestyle changes in adulthood. It’s no wonder that sedentary children have a much greater chance of becoming sedentary adults.

So what’s a parent to do when their child is unfit and overweight? Many things! In fact, it is the parents who have the greatest influence in being able to help their child. I remember one weight loss expert saying that parents could be the greatest help or hindrance in the weight loss efforts of his young clients.

Be a role model
Before you can help your child, you have to ask if you are a good role model of a healthy lifestyle. The mother I mentioned above was “walking the talk”. She exercises everyday and watches what she eats. But some parents with overweight and unfit kids are overweight and unfit themselves. If this is your problem, then you will have to change your own lifestyle first before you can help your child.

Get professional help if you need it
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a kitchen pantry full of soft drinks, sweets, potato chips, and the like are a major part of the reason why children become overweight. But some kids put on excess pounds simply by eating too much good nutritious food. How can you tell how much is enough? Ideally, you should seek the advice of a certified dietician (a nutritionist who has passed the board exams) so your child can lose weight safely. Growing children need the right amount of calories and nutrients to reach their full potential.

You may also need the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist if your child is using food as a coping mechanism because he or she does not know how to express what they are feeling. The therapist will teach you and your child how to talk about feelings in an appropriate manner. Overeating can be a symptom of a deeper psychological issue.

We learn to use food to comfort ourselves very early in life. Just watch a child stop crying when it is given a lollipop even if he or she isn’t hungry. Even as adults, we tend to eat the foods that remind us of our childhood when we are upset. These are called “comfort foods”. Of course, not everyone reacts the same way to emotional distress. Some people actually lose their appetite when under stress.

Teach kids lifetime fitness skills
Being forced to join team sports can traumatize athletically challenged children. This can turn them off for good about being physically active. I know many people who hate exercise because they have such bad memories of being forced to do sports as a kid and enduring taunts and jeers because they were so lousy at it. Now as adults, they equate exercise with those memories.

Kids should learn skills for lifetime fitness (swimming, cycling, running, dancing, hiking, etc.) and not just how to play sports. These skills are more practical because involvement in team sports is difficult to carry over to adulthood.

One expert noted that in spite of the many youth sports leagues in the United States, the adult obesity levels are still climbing. As a child, you have all the time to play on a team but as an adult, you and your friends have to work to earn a living and it is hard to find time to get together for your favorite sport.

Spend time with your child
Even though children have an inborn desire to run around and play, your unfit child may have lost this natural tendency because of a lifestyle of playing computer games or watching TV and also because he feels weak when forced to do physical activity of any kind. How do you bring it back? Start by spending time with your child doing something physical outdoors. It can be something as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood. Before their teens, children love spending time with their parents. Take advantage and use that time to get to know your child as you gently lead them down the path to fitness. You can go biking, hiking, rollerblading, swimming, etc. Just don’t make the child feel like this is “punishment” for being overweight. If the child tires easily, stop and rest, then continue again when he or she is ready. Eventually, your child’s fitness level will increase and before you know it, your child will have regained what was rightfully theirs – a fit and healthy body.

I know one success story involving a single mother and her daughter. The child had become overweight partly as a result of the stress she was under during her parent ’s separation. The mother worked so it was the yaya who would walk or rollerblade with the daughter after school. On weekends, it was the mom who would go with the child. The daughter not only lost weight (the yaya became slimmer too) but, when she reached high school, she had gained enough confidence to join the varsity soccer team and even went abroad to compete internationally. Today, she is a young woman committed to a lifestyle of fitness. Things would have turned out a whole lot differently if that mother had not given her daughter that most precious of gifts – her time and attention. .

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