Raising the Bar

Photography by Hobe Brunson

Establishing Healthy Habits for Nutrition and Fitness

By: Hannah Overton-Middleton

Each New Year, countless resolutions are made with a healthier lifestyle in mind. While most of these revolve around personal goals, sizes and weights, it’s more important than ever today to keep the whole family and the whole year in mind. This season of new beginnings, we had the opportunity to speak with experts on how to get the whole family, but even more importantly your kids, involved in living a healthy lifestyle.

Parents in today’s world have a whole different set of challenges and issues to face than did the previous generation of parents. Our world is riddled with technology that didn’t exist even five years ago. Often times we might realize that we spend too much time scrolling Facebook or Instagram, but we aren’t the only ones struggling. Our kids are increasingly exposed to more media and screens and distractions than ever. Screens and app addictions don’t just target adults. It’s more important than ever to make sure your kids are active and making healthy choices throughout the day.

This is an issue Vickey Beard, the Vice President of Healthy Living for YMCA of East Tennessee, is used to helping families face. “Children need to be active every day to promote healthy growth and development. Kids who establish healthy lifestyle patterns at a young age will carry them – and their benefits – forward for the rest of their lives,” says Beard. Healthy habits start young. It may be tempting to download an app onto your phone to keep your child busy, but Beard shares that “using a smartphone to divert a child’s attention could be harmful to their social-emotional development; these devices replace the hands-on activities important for the development of sensorimotor and visual-motor skills.” Essentially, screen time should be limited. Increased idle activities encouraged by technology are adding to a major problem in our country.

Nutritionist Lee Murphy, senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee, states that “Childhood obesity is the top concern for our youth. With phones and tablets and computers and TVs, it is very easy for children to be sedentary. The recommendation is for 60 minutes of activity daily for children, and parents cannot rely on school to provide all of that.” Making sure that your children put all of the devices down and spend some time being active is an important part of every day.

When it comes to kids’ fitness specifically, Beard says that “there are three elements of fitness for kids: endurance, strength and flexibility.” Endurance can be a competitive sport or activity such as soccer, swimming, or basketball. Strength training for kids simply involves them learning to use their own bodies for fitness, including push-ups, crunches, pull-ups, and anything else to help tone their muscles and build gradual strength. Flexibility can come from anything that involves stretching: yoga, gymnastics, and dance are just a few options. According to Beard, an important way to approach a healthy lifestyle with your child is to “think about what really motivates them as a parent, meaning the parent will need to step up and live that lifestyle also.”

In Knoxville there are many options for families to stay active. The YMCA of East Tennessee and other groups in our area offer group sports and activities for kids. The YMCA also has a group exercise program for kids called PowerUp Fitness for Kids ages 6-12.

While it may be difficult for a parent to participate in a team sport or group fitness class with their child, there are other ways for the entire family to enjoy activities together throughout the week. Beard encourages group activities like hiking or biking, two perfect options with the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains at our back door. A simple walk through the neighborhood can encourage an active mindset in your children as well. Anything that gets them outdoors or moving their bodies is a win towards a healthy lifestyle.

Staying active isn’t the only way to make sure your children establish healthy habits though. Beard and Murphy both agree that an active lifestyle and nutrition go hand-in-hand. “Healthy nutrition is an important part of leading a healthy lifestyle. Combined with physical activity, your diet can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease,” says Beard.

Murphy even has two specific goals for encouraging nutrition in your child’s life: “Aim for a goal of at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Ideally, that includes at least two servings of fruits and at least two servings of vegetables.” She also encourages “creating a naturally colorful plate… each representing a different phytochemical and nutritious vitamins and minerals. Choosing a ‘rainbow’ on your plate helps encourage nutrient-dense options.” But for Murphy, nutrition is a lifelong issue to be cognizant of, as “proper nutrition not only helps development, it is essential for adequate and healthy growth to occur and reach potential. From a mother’s prenatal nutrition, to breastfeeding an infant, to the introduction of first foods, to creating healthy food habits into toddlerhood and the school-age years, each step of an individual’s growth and life cycle holds crucial outlets for nutrition.”

An easy and fun way to get your child involved and excited with choosing good nutrition is to help them make important decisions! “Allow the kids to pick which vegetables will be served with meals—not IF they will have vegetables, but which ones. Allow them to help in food prep, and even consider food preparation all the way from the seed in a family garden,” suggests Murphy. “You can also try ‘food art’ and make fun shapes and colorful designs with your food presentation.”

When asked if there were specific staples of a nutritious diet to keep on hand, Murphy suggests, “plenty of fresh (and frozen), colorful fruits and vegetables; whole grains (like oatmeal and whole-grain breads and cereals); lean proteins (like nuts, baked chicken, and lean beef); low-fat dairy products; and don’t forget hydration with non-sugary drinks (like simple water!).”

At the end of the day, Beard and Murphy both insist on one very important aspect of encouraging a healthy lifestyle in your child: it’s something you have to experience together. “Do it with your child,” encourages Beard. If staying active and pursuing good nutrition doesn’t seem fun or interesting to you, most likely it won’t seem that way to your child. Encourage your children to get involved with decisions to choose good foods and fun ways of staying fit.

Make health more than just a New Year’s resolution. Make it a lifestyle. Make it a family affair!   

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