Eat, Sleep, Play

Newsflash! Just when we were getting terminally depressed about the rapidly expanding girth of American kiddos, there’s emerging information that offers hope, and lots of it.

New research from Ohio State University published in the journal Pediatrics supports a simple, yet elegant prevention strategy for the national explosion of childhood obesity. The study suggests that preschool-aged kids have a lower risk of obesity if they regularly engage in three specific household routines: eating dinner as a family, getting adequate sleep and limiting their weekday television viewing time.

The study showed that 4-year-olds living in homes with all three routines had an almost 40 percent lower prevalence of obesity than children living in homes that practiced none of them. The routines were protective even among groups that typically have a high risk of obesity, including children who’s mother is obese, those living below the poverty line, and those growing up in single-parent homes.

This is huge, folks, and it backs up what we’ve been saying over and over. In just three easy steps (well, maybe not easy, but certainly do-able) we can turn this thing around. What does each of these mean to the life of your family, and how can we help make them a habit?

Eat dinner as a family. For all you soccer, ballet, piano lesson, math tutoring and full-time-job moms out there …I feel your pain, and I know how hard it is to actually make this happen on a regular basis. It seems overwhelming and all but impossible. Sometimes all you can manage on the run is a few baby carrots, a Power Bar and a healthy bowl of my boyfriends, Ben & Jerry, when you get home. I know where you live.

But let me offer a different angle on dinnertime. What if you decided to block out the hours between, say, 6:00 and 7:00 PM for family time? What if you just say “NO” to other activities that cut into that time? What if you start with 2 or 3 nights a week, grab a handful of quick ‘n healthy recipes (Rachael Ray is a good starting place), and give it a try for a 2 week trial period? Start slow and make sure everyone shows up … you just might get hooked.

Make bedtime count. We talk about this all the time, and by now you know that kids need plenty of sleep. But how much exactly? Here’s the breakdown, according to WebMD.

1-3 Years Old: 12 – 14 hours per day

3-6 Years Old: 10 – 12 hours per day

7-12 Years Old: 10 – 11 hours per day

12-18 Years Old: 8 – 9 hours per day

This is only going to happen if you set a reasonable bedtime for your guys and make it stick. That means if your 8-year-old 3rd grader needs to fit in, let’s say, 10 1/2 hours of zzz time before his alarm goes off at 7 AM, he’d better be well on his way to REM by 8:30. This may seem impossible if they’ve gotten used to staying up for American Idol and falling into bed exhausted right around the time you do, so don’t try the cold turkey approach.

Start moving school night bedtimes back by about 15 minutes at a time. Keep it there for a few days while they adjust and then take another step back. Repeat until you reach a time that works. If their favorite TV show is a roadblock, vow to tape it for family viewing later or on the weekend. Value added? You’ll find yourself with some alone time you didn’t have before. I say that’s a win-win.

Limit TV time. I know, I just finished telling you to tape their favorite shows, but those need to be included in a sensible amount of time spent in front of the screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV (no, not even those Baby Einstein videos) and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day.

If this is way out of line with what your kiddos are watching now, try the gradual approach described above for bedtime. Decrease viewing time in a step-wise way until your family goal is reached. Use that extra time for creative, active play — outdoors if possible. Some basic family rules that can help get you there …

Keep TVs out of bedrooms.Turn the TV off during meals. Don’t allow kids to watch TV while doing homework. Treat TV as a privilege to be earned — not a right, and set a good example by limiting your own TV viewing.

And what about video games? That’s screen time too, and ideally it should be included. As a compromise, try replacing some of those sedentary games with Wii Fit or other movement-based ones.

We can turn this crisis of obesity around. Transforming these three simple routines can make all the difference. Try it in your house.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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One response to “Eat, Sleep, Play”

  1. Leah

    Thanks for sharing! So simple!

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