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This article originally ran in the June 16, 2008 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

For kids, summer is a time for endless days of splashing in pools, out-of-town trips and lazy afternoons with friends.  Meanwhile, parents’ thoughts should turn to keeping their children healthy and active during the extended summer break.  This is no small concern.  The rate of overweight and obese children in the United States is skyrocketing.

A 2006 report of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicates that 17 percent of American children ages 12-19 are overweight; more than triple the rate in 1980.  The reasons are many and include easy access to food, overeating, a lack of exercise, indoor recreation such as video games and television, and an on-the-go lifestyle fueled by convenience foods high in salt and fat.

Parents can keep their kids healthy and fit by encouraging exercise, feeding them a balanced diet and setting a good example.


Make Exercise Fun for the Whole Family
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle requires regular exercise.  With children, the key is to find something they enjoy doing and using that activity to incorporate exercise. 

“Kids enjoy games and sports, so make them a part of your everyday routine,” says Ken Haller M.D., a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and an associate professor of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.  “Toss a ball in the back yard after work, ride bikes around the neighborhood or jump rope for 10 minutes.  Make it fun by creating a jump rope rhyme.  Kids respond well to routines, so they’ll see the exercise as a fun part of their day.”


Balanced Diet is Key
While it’s easy to point to certain foods as inherently bad, any food can be eaten if the amount is controlled. Parents should concentrate on providing a balanced diet for their kids.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Web site can help you get started.

Since each child is different, and each requires a different amount of daily calories, the old adage of “clean your plate” is outdated and should be forgotten.  Dr. Haller says that kids know their bodies best, and when they say they’re full, they’re full. 

Rita Chrivia, clinical dietitian at Cardinal Glennon, recommends that parents limit availability of high calorie foods such as ice cream, soda, juice, and cookies, and make healthy foods easy for kids to find. 

“Since many children choose to eat what is in front of them, make healthy food available by placing it at their level,” Chrivia says.  “Put fruit on a lower shelf in the refrigerator rather than in the drawer, or better yet, place it in a bowl on the table, so kids can grab it themselves.” 

Instead of buying pre-packaged snacks, Chrivia advises parents to prepare simple snacks for summer days.  She suggests sliced fruit, bite-sized veggies, yogurt and even popsicles, in moderation. 

“It’s not certain foods that are the problem,” Chrivia says.  “It’s eating too much, and a lack of exercise, that contribute to the rise in childhood obesity rates.”

Educate Children and Set a Good Example
Parents can set their children on the right path by preparing them to make good choices and setting an example.

A good time to talk about proper nutrition is during a trip to the grocery store.  Walk through the aisles and ask your child why they think certain foods are better for them than others.  Give examples and let them pick out some healthy grocery items. “A trip to the store is a great opportunity to educate kids about nutrition,” Dr. Haller says.  “If the store is close enough, and if you’re only picking up a few items, consider taking your bike or walking, so you can talk about exercise along the way.” 

Setting a good example is as simple as showing kids the behaviors you expect.  If you want your child to eat healthy and exercise often, set a good example, work toward family goals and exercise and eat together.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at


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