12 Tips for Getting Kids Fit without “Dieting”
When you make health and fitness a big part of your life, you naturally want to pass along some of those values onto your child. Most of us don’t however, want to put our own children on a diet that restricts them from enjoying their childhood years and potentially create an unhealthy relationship with food, body dysmorphia complex or eating disorder later on in life. We want them to be happy kids – comfortable in their own body and confident enough to stand up to any type of bullying.
I remember the first time I picked my son up from school after one of the first times he had been bullied badly about his weight. It literally blew my mind to hear some of this shit that was being said to him. We forget how nasty some of these young kids can be with no parents around to supervise. Not yet in grade 3 yet and under 9 years old but verbal and physical bullying going on, not just from one kid, but several. It broke my heart to see the damage it had done to my son. Something had to be done.
We immediately think of ways to fix the problem. And after coming to terms that it’s not an option to confront the bully’s parents and drag them all over the school yard while pointing out their own inadequacies (lol), we start brainstorming more logical, educated ways to resolve the issue…without the negative legal ramifications. The fact is there will always be bullies. Whether you’re six, 16, 36 or 60 – somewhere, someone is going to bully you in a situation. The problem isn’t eliminating bullying. It’s in how we handle the situation, our emotional reaction to the behaviour and building a rock-solid self-esteem that’s impermeable to the insecurities projected from the bully.
But it’s not just bullying and self-esteem we are trying to fix here. It’s important for parents to remember that it has been proven in research that obese children are in fact at a higher risk for things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They are also prone to experiencing things like asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems and depression. There is no denying that the eating habits we establish in childhood can have lifelong lasting effects that can make it a little more challenging as an adult.
While I’m no expert in child psychology, I do know what seems to work in the real world. I’m sure some doctors will tell you to put your child on a diet and on a case-by-case basis, that may be the best solution in some situations. In my years however, I’ve seen far too many clients with eating disorders, extreme body dysmorphia issues, fear of eating, self-destructive behaviours and an overall unhealthy relationship with food that significantly limits them from having a normal life. We don’t want to make band-aid type decisions now that will later come back to haunt our children later in life that ends them up in a chair with a psychologist explaining how their parents put them on an extremely restrictive (contest prep type) diet at the age of six.
Here are some strategies that I’ve used which seemed to provide a lasting, positive effect on the overall situation. While some of them may not be directly related to weight loss, they are part of a holistic type of approach where each component feeds off the other.
Don’t let your kids be too picky with foods. Too many parents let their children decide what they get to eat. Problem is they don’t always know what’s they need vs. what they want. Strongly encourage (aka force) your child to eat a variety of foods. This will not only ensure they get a variety of nutrients, minerals and meet all their daily guidelines, but it will prevent them from falling into a trap where they only eat about 10 foods and flat out refuse anything else. This is what we are eating and there is nothing else to eat this evening.
Water is king. Do what you can to make your child go to water as their primary source of fluids. Not juice, not pop, not artificially sweetened drinks, not milk. WATER. Teaching kids at a young age the importance of water will have huge pay offs later on. The more sugary and sweet beverages you give them in their childhood years, the more they will crave these same things later in life. We can save the ‘dairy debate’ for another blog post, but no, not all kids NEED to drink several milks per day and there are far better sources of calcium available, without the insulin producing effect of dairy.
Portion control meals. Most kids are pretty good at stopping eating when they are full, unless of course they’re eating one of their favorite meals. If their favorite meal is a healthy one, then it’s smooth sailing – let them indulge. However, if their favorite food is packed with refined carbs, sugars, saturated fats and very dense in calories – set their portion to something that’s appropriate for a child, not a full-grown adult. Sounds like common sense, until you watch your six-year-old devour two plates of beef short ribs in under 15 minutes.
Slow them down when eating. Many kids now eat fast and pay very little (if any) attention to their body telling them they are full. Sit your child down at a table, remind them to chew their food, it’s not a race to see who can finish first and even teach them to engage in some conversation during a meal to further slow them down. It takes around 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain – “We are full, stop eating”, however the problem is most kids have already packed down more than they needed in the first 10 minutes.
Set screen time limits. No, it’s not normal for a young child to be on their phone for 6-8 hours per day, nor is it healthy for their physical and psychological development. Set some realistic limits they can access iPads, TVs, computers, phones, video games, etc – basically anything that is sedentary and limits real life human interaction for more than 3 hours per day. You may decide on more or even less than this, but good luck if your kids are stuck in a covid lockdown.
Set daily exercise requirements. My son noticed from a young age that I was getting a workout in most days of the week. It was part of my daily routine. I was lucky in a sense that he made this connection and being an only child, he didn’t want to feel left out. So we started this thing called “workout of the day”. This doesn’t mean he was in a gym training his pecs. It was basically 45-minutes of continuous, moderate to high intensity activity that challenged him in some way. Bike rides, bootcamps, agility drills, rollerblading, hikes, hill climbs , etc – these were all part of his workouts, that made him feel part of a lifestyle, without the pressure of weight loss.
Do not completely restrict their favorite foods. Most of us have enough knowledge to look at what our kids are eating on a daily basis and can reasonably determine what’s likely causing any excess weight accumulation. The simple reaction by some parents and even doctors is to try to eliminate these foods from their diet. This is problematic for a few reasons – we aren’t with them every day and we can’t control what they do at school, with friends or with another parent or grandparent. Plus if you tell some kids something is “bad”, it could spark even more of an interest in that food and make them want it more. A more feasible solution is to explain to your child that too much of a good thing can become a bad thing when it’s more than your body actually needs. Teach them to enjoy their favorite treats once in awhile in smaller, controlled portions during a time they’ve been getting all their “workouts” in.
Focus on being strong, fit and healthy. Instead of weight loss and looking thin, try to reinforce the idea of them becoming stronger, faster, healthier and more athletic. Explain that all kids are built differently and being bigger isn’t a disadvantage at all. Engrain the idea that being a bigger kid can be an advantage for many sports and as long as they are healthy fit and strong, weight and size means nothing. As a parent, don’t get too caught up in these “ideal” weight ranges for kids and I don’t recommend choosing a target weight goal for your child. They are simply guidelines that fail to take into account a long list of key variables.
Find activities they enjoy. It probably took us about 25 different attempts – trying out various sports and recreational activities but we eventually did find 4 active things he enjoyed. We eventually decided on karate, bike riding, bootcamps and basketball. Some parents, (even our own probably) would just tell their child what sport they are going to play based on what they wanted. Based on my own experience, it was important to me that he had some of a say in the sports and activities he was going to be doing on a regular basis. As long as the activity requires some level of intensity and has characteristics that build them up in other areas of their life, it’s a great choice. Sports should be a means to an end – a character building, personal development tool – not a lottery ticket to be a professional athlete in that sport.
Set short term goals and reward them. Whatever sport or activity you and your child decide on, set some fun, realistic goals relating to that interest and them praise them when it’s achieved. For example, a bike ride may start with 2 km and then gradually add 1-2 kms each week based on the feedback they are giving you. Use an app to track distance travelled and show them their accomplishments at the end of the ride. You can then reward them with something you know they enjoy doing – like visiting an arcade or adding an extra hour to their screen time the next day. Other more subjective type sports such as martial arts – you may choose to do weekly practice sessions to go over some kind of routine or flow they’ve been working on. Polish the routine and remind them of the improvements you notice.
Get the whole team on the same page. If your child spends time in different households through the week or regularly visits with grandparents, it’s critical to get all adults in sync with the game plan. Your efforts to improve eating habits will be wasted if the next home he’s at it’s an anything-goes type of approach. The child needs to know this is how it’s going to be from now on – not just when he’s with Dad or just when he’s with Mom. Consistency across the board is the only way they will adopt the upgraded behaviours.
Make changes gradually and progressively. Never attempt a complete overhaul of your child’s diet and daily routine. Identify some areas to improve and then pick one or two things you want to modify at a time. They will be less resistant to the change when they don’t feel like too much is changing all at once. Know your end goal and work towards it. Might take a few months, but this is not a diet you are trying to get them to follow for 12 weeks. It’s a lifestyle to maintain for the rest of their years.
Remember that what may work for you as an adult to lose weight may not be optimal or even advisable for a child. You may be doing more harm than good trying to get them to a certain weight that some chart told you was “normal”. You really can’t go wrong when you lead by example with your commitment to health and fitness. They’re always watching you, learning, analyzing and being inspired.
I hope you found something of value in this post and please tag me in your own child’s success story on IG at @teamtrextraining or @seantrex. I’d love to check it out!