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Help Your Overweight Child Get Active

How To Help Your Overweight Child Get Physically Active

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 16 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 19 are overweight. These children badly need physical activity. But for overweight kids, exercise can be a double-edged sword. Being overweight makes getting physical tough for children. But we, as parents, can help.

Start Slow

Cory Lang of Covington, La., weighed 178 pounds when he joined Committed to Kids, a pediatric weight management program. Cory's mom, Sheri Lang, says Cory was in poor health and that he felt "hopeless" about his weight and appearance.

While he frequently tried to exercise, his weight wouldn't allow him to keep up with other kids. At age 11, he still hadn't learned how to balance on a bicycle. "A couple of years ago, I put some stainless steel training wheels on the bike he had at the time," says Lang. "He leaned to one side, and his weight just bent the training wheel out, and it was over. He gave up."

As little as 10 pounds of excess weight "puts extra stress on the heart, lungs and the muscles in the legs," says Dr. Melinda Sothern, a clinical exercise physiologist with Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and the author of Trim Kids: The Proven 12-Week Plan That Has Helped Thousands of Children Achieve a Healthier Weight (Harper Resource, 2001). "It's much more difficult for overweight kids to do the same kind of exercise, at the same speed, as other kids who don't have that extra 10 pounds."

This true physical limitation is often misunderstood. "People think overweight kids are simply not trying hard enough. But physically, their bodies will only allow them to do so much, and then they just hit the wall." While the standard advice from parents and coaches is to just work through the pain, this isn't a good idea. "These kids cannot push through the pain," says Dr. Sothern. "They are physically incapable [of doing so]."

Instead, Dr. Sothern teaches the children in her program to pace themselves by recognizing cues such as rapid breathing and pulse, feeling hot and getting red in the face. When they notice these signals, it's time to slow down. "If they are so exhausted they can't even walk, they should sit, but keep their arms moving, keep their heart and lungs pumping, and when they feel recovered they can start walking again," she says.

Set Goals

Children who are overweight are also prone to feelings of helplessness – what researchers call low self-efficacy. "They feel like they can't really control their weight, so then they feel like they can't do anything," says Dr. Sothern. It's important to recognize this, especially when setting fitness goals. By giving these children something they can easily accomplish, what inevitably happens is they end up doing more, says Dr. Sothern. She recommends very inactive children start with only 10 to 15 minutes of exercise twice a week and increase their activity slowly to ensure they meet or even exceed their own goals.

Overweight kids often avoid physical activity because they are afraid of being bullied. Sadly, that's a valid fear. Barbara Blake of Thibodaux, La., had several reasons for wanting her son, Matthew, to get in shape. While 11-year-old Matt's health was her primary concern, she worried about teasing as well. "Unfortunately, kids can be mean," says Blake. "I've struggled with weight all my life, and that was a big part of encouraging him to change, because I didn't want him to have to go through what I went through."

Beware the Bullies

Should parents try to solve bullying problems, or is it better to steer overweight kids into activities where they won't have to fight the harassment? According to Sylvia Rimm, a child psychologist and author of Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children (Rodale, 2004), parents should take responsibility for both. "The child should be able to find other activities where people aren't necessarily watching them," says Rimm. But while all children must learn to cope with some degree of teasing, "the parent certainly needs to communicate if the child is at risk of being hurt, or if it's extreme," she adds.

Dr. Sothern adds the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" attitude doesn't help overweight children become fit. "If you think you're going to send your overweight child onto a soccer field, and it's going to build character if they are yelled at, pushed real hard by the coaches and teased by the other kids, you're not going to build a better kid," she says. "What you're going to do is contribute to them having low self-esteem." Instead, parents of overweight children should help them work on conditioning and learning basic skills for the sport in which they're interested. Make eventually trying out for the team one of their fitness goals.

She often recommends non-team sports like swimming, where children can set their own goals without worrying about slowing down their teammates. "One of the best is martial arts because in martial arts they earn belts, not necessarily for sparring, but for performance of forms or techniques," says Dr. Sothern. "Also, it's a sport that encourages self-discipline, self-control and endurance, strength and flexibility – what I call the 'triple whammy.'"

Focus on Fitness

How should you initiate a dialogue with your child about the need to become active? Don't confront her about her weight. "If they've come to you and said, 'Mom, I'm overweight and I want to do something,' that's totally different," says Dr. Sothern, "Then you can sit down with them, set some kind of long-term goal and get them working toward it."

Otherwise, just make it about fitness – not only for the overweight child, but for the whole family. "It's about redirecting, giving choices and praising them when they do something physically active," says Dr. Sothern. The parent's job, she adds, "is not to badger, but to encourage and remind."

What doesn't work? "Sarcasm," says Rimm. "Battles don't work. Expecting the overweight child to do exercise while the other children aren't expected to do exercise – that certainly doesn't work. Exercise is healthy for everyone so it just needs to be a way of life."

Do What Comes Naturally

The biggest changes are often the simplest. According to Dr. Sothern, a recent study suggests that spontaneous activity – just getting kids out of their chairs – may help normalize weight.

Blake would agree. She and her husband began limiting Matt and his siblings' use of video games, and got rid of all but basic cable TV. "We kind of struggled for a while on getting rid of the cable, because we thought, 'Oh gosh, we're gonna miss it,'" she says. "And we don't. We actually have more time as a family now, because the TV is off and we have time to talk."

Because a child's immature metabolism isn't designed for sustained exercise, kids need to be active in short spurts. So if you want to go walk the track, says Dr. Sothern, "that's OK, but don't expect your 8-year-old to do it with you. Bring a tub of toys, a jump rope, a bike, a scooter, a ball. Let her play while you walk."

Exercise must be fun for kids to succeed. For instance, toning exercises didn't really interest Matthew Blake. But he did want a scooter. Before long, the former couch potato was zipping through the neighborhood. "He'd go for [an] hour and a half," says Blake. "I told him, if I'd known this I would have bought him a scooter a year ago." Riding the scooter raised Matt's fitness level quickly, and soon he was even more active, jumping on the trampoline and playing basketball. Matt lost 25 pounds following the Trim Kids fitness plan, and is now at a maintenance level. "It feels nice, and I noticed my reputation at school has been going upwards," says Matt.

Due to finding a new favorite sport, Cory Lang's activity level is the highest it has ever been and his general health is much better. So what's he doing? Riding the bike he got for Christmas. "I just learned how to do it and found out it's really easy and a lot of fun," he says.

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