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How to Discuss Exercise and Weight With your Child in a Healthy Way

20 October 2022

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There is a real stigma with discussing weight, whether it’s with friends or family. It’s even harder when you attempt to discuss this with your own children. Considering 20 percent (1 in 5) of children are obese, these discussions – regardless of how uncomfortable they may be – eventually occur in many households.

But how do you know how to approach these conversations? Further, how do you decipher what is right to say and what is wrong to say? This blog will provide tips on how to talk to your kids about their health and engage them in activities to help them feel good about themselves.

 

Talking to your child about weight

As much as parents want to learn about how to talk about weight with your child, the focus instead should be on how not to talk to your child.

Here are some tips to guide you in your conversations.

Have an open dialogue: Because weight can be so uncomfortable to talk about, parents tend to come off the wrong way when discussing any sort of body image topics or concerns with their children. Be open and honest and try to keep your words positive.

Beware of judgment: Don’t tease, make fun of or judge your child for their decisions. Judgment can evoke feelings of shame in your child. Instead, put yourself in their shoes and try to speak with empathy. This will help nurture a discussion that helps them feel supportive, not ridiculed.

Ask open-ended questions: Listening is key. Inquire how your child is feeling and why they think or act a certain way. Are they being bullied at school? Do they not feel safe at home? 

Provide reassurance: In the case of bullying or weight-shaming at school, provide reassurance to your child and acknowledge how difficult it must be to deal with and how impactful those feelings are. Remind them their figure doesn’t define who they are. They are still important and have many redeeming qualities. At the same time, you can explain to them that carrying extra weight is instead an issue of health – much like keeping your heart or lungs healthy.

Here are some examples of how to reassure your child.

  • “I’m sorry how this is impacting you.”
  • “You have many redeeming qualities, and your weight doesn’t determine who you are.”
  • “Thank you for opening up to me and sharing your feelings.”

Avoid trigger words: Don’t use the word “fat” or “calories” in your discussions. Negative comments can be triggering and have a lasting negative impact.

Place an emphasis on health, not weight: In general, topics should be about health, not weight and how their body feels, not looks.

Don’t use a rewards system: If you feel your child is unhealthy or becoming overweight, don’t lure them into healthy decisions by using sweets or treats. For example, don’t try to get them to eat more fruits or vegetables by offering them a cookie for obeying you. This will only lead to developing more bad habits.

Don’t label certain foods: It’s easy to talk about fast food, snacks and other desserts as being “bad” for your child. However, avoid using these words to limit the negative connotation. If there is too much control, your child may be more likely to develop bad habits or overeat these foods while at a friend's house.

Use the help of a pediatrician: When in doubt, schedule a visit with your child’s pediatrician and as a way to guide the conversation about healthy behaviors. They can speak to your child about the dangers of obesity as it relates to health problems.

 

How much weight should your child gain each year?

Many parents have a false sense of fear about their child’s weight gain. In other words, they easily worry about too much – or too little – weight gain. 

In general, children gain about 4 to 7 pounds per year until puberty. To be sure, talk to your child’s pediatrician about what is an appropriate weight for their age, gender and height. 

Child BMI range

In adults, weight and height are used to calculate body mass index (BMI) that ranges from below 18.5 to above 30. In children, weight-for-age percentiles are used instead of numerical values. 

Here is a general BMI range to consider for your child.

  • Underweight: Less than 5th percentile
  • Healthy weight: Between 5th percentile and 85th percentile
  • Overweight: Between 85th percentile and 95th percentile
  • Obesity: Greater than 95th percentile

 

How to help a child lose weight

Several years ago, Weight Watchers unveiled an app meant to help children lose weight. The app was met with mainstream criticism. Why? The problem is tracking your weight and eating habits can lead to obsessive behaviors that become counterproductive.

Dieting can send the wrong message and lead to the development of worse behaviors, such as binge eating, anoxia and other eating disorders. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics backed up this claim regarding the development of unhealthy habits when attempting to lose weight. Plus, diets are generally short-term fixes, which can confuse children and send the wrong message – that when they’re done dieting, they can go back to eating how they used to.

Instead of dieting, make lifestyle changes together as a family. In other words, don’t treat each child differently. One child shouldn’t be allowed to eat fast food while the other eats vegetable sticks.

Be a role model to your child and teach them about the importance of whole foods and what they mean for your body. For example, explain the difference between apple juice and a whole apple. Most of an apple’s nutrients are found in the skin.

Help empower your children by inviting them to shop with you and prepare recipes in the kitchen. They’re more likely to get healthier foods if they are invested in them from the start. 

When trying to establish healthy habits, use the daily "5-2-1-0" rule, which involves five servings of fruits and vegetables, using screen time for two hours or less, having an hour of physical activity and zero sugary drinks.

Whenever habits are modified, it’s important to still remember to focus on staying healthy and not using the changes to reach a certain weight. Overall health is more important than an arbitrary number.

 

Benefits of physical activity for children

Physical activity shouldn’t be only tied to weight loss. It’s important to move throughout the day for many reasons, starting with health benefits.

Whether it’s your child riding their bike or running around with kids from the neighborhood, physical activity can help bone and muscle development and decrease the future risk of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cancer.

In addition, physical activity can help children in the following ways, according to the American Psychological Association:

  • Mental health: Children are more likely to view themself in a positive manner and have less stress.
  • Behavioral health: Being active can allow children to regulate their emotions better, leading to fewer disciplinary timeouts.
  • Academics: Children are more likely to pay attention in school and perform better academically if they’re active.
  • Cognitive development: Physical activity has been shown to benefit executive function, the area of the brain responsible for memory and thinking.

 

Exercising with your kids

Now that you know the importance of activity, the next part is to encourage your children to be more active throughout the day. You should strive for 60 minutes of activity per day.

To do this, try adding it into their normal, everyday routine. For example, suggest they walk to school with a friend instead of getting a ride in the car. If you have a park nearby, ask your child if they want to ride their bike there with you. For families with pets, ask your child to help you walk the dog before dinner or in the mornings on the weekend. When indoors, take the stairs instead of the elevator. 

For families who prefer yoga or other at-home workouts, consider asking your child if they’d like to join in. Yoga is a popular choice among families because it helps boost coordination, strength and flexibility all in a relaxing environment that is beneficial to mental help. YouTube and other digital platforms have many options to choose from when it comes to family-friendly yoga. 

 

If you are concerned about your child's weight, talk to your pediatrician about their BMI and ways in which you can incorporate healthy routines. For children who struggle mentally with their body image, consider having them talk with a mental health provider.

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