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A Summer Jump from Fat to Fit

Use school break to improve your kids' eating and fitness habits

SUNDAY, July 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Summer may mean a break from school for kids, but experts say it's also a great time for parents to enroll their children in their own informal weight-control program to stress more exercise and better eating.

"Since parents are possibly spending more time with their child during the summer, they can become more involved in their dietary habits," says Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

That can include taking the kids to the grocery store to help select the food and then involving them in preparing the meals, she adds. "It's not only educational for the child, but it's fun," she says.

Because there's less tendency to cook in the summer, it's also a great time to enjoy such less-fattening foods as salads and watermelon.

And because the heat produces increased thirst, it's important to keep kids hydrated. Just don't let them confuse thirst for hunger, Sass cautions.

"When you or your kids feel like you need something to eat, it may just be thirst, so try drinking some water first," she advises.

And make sure the beverage of choice is water if you're watching your child's weight, Sass adds.

"It's not that a drink like juice is unhealthy, but if a child can't utilize the calories they're taking in, they will be stored as fat, even if from something healthy like juice," she says.

Healthy eating habits are only part of the solution, however. Equally important is exercise. But starting an exercise program -- for children and adults -- may not be that easy for those already overweight, says Dr. Inyanga Mack, clinical director of Temple Family Physicians in Philadelphia.

"What happens is people who are in poor physical condition aren't motivated to move right away because they are 'deconditioned.' When they start getting active, they get tired easily and get short of breath. So basically, it's a matter of building up your stamina," Mack says.

"And since we know that many overweight children have parents who are also overweight, it may be a case of being in an environment where exercise is just not part of the family's routine. And it could be hard to start that routine," he says.

Making exercise a family affair can help.

"I usually recommend that the parents engage in the activity with their children for a number of reasons," Mack says. "It addresses the safety issue and it also allows the parents to get much-needed physical activity as well."

And because you're dealing with children, it's important to make the exercise program fun, Mack says.

"You don't necessarily have to be jogging or on the treadmill. If it's dancing or skating or swimming or Rollerblading or something they're really willing to do everyday, [it] will make a difference," he says.

Mack adds another caution: Don't set unrealistic goals.

"It takes time. People may have unrealistic expectations and when they don't lose weight right away, they become discouraged and give [exercise] up before they've given it a good shot.

"That's why it's important to present it more as a lifestyle change that's going to be done every day for all the other reasons that exercise is good -- because it makes you feel better, because you do get more energy and because it's fun. That way children will keep it up for a longer period of time," Mack says.

Obesity in children is a serious problem in America, creating potentially dangerous health consequences. Since the 1970s, the obesity rate in U.S. kids has jumped from 8 percent to 14 percent. Obesity raises a child's risk of developing Type II diabetes and sets the stage for an increased risk of heart disease and stroke later in life.

What to Do: For information on preventing obesity in children, visit the Just-for-Kids Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Inyanga Mack, M.D., clinical director of Temple Family Physicians, Philadelphia; Cynthia Sass, registered dietitian, University of South Florida, Tampa; Temple University press release
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