Home Is Where the Heart Is: Teaching Kids To Live A Healthy Lifestyle

By:  Dr. Kelly McGraw Browning, Psy.D.

The rate of pediatric obesity has reached an alarming all time high. In fact, one out of three American kids are now considered overweight or obese.  Children who are overweight  are at risk for a number of serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and depression.  Parents play a critical role in overcoming this epidemic and there are many ways that parents can encourage children to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.

Take A Team Approach

First and foremost, parents are the number one role model for children.  The most important step in helping your children lead a more healthful lifestyle is to model good habits at home.  Set a good example for your children.  If parents make healthy food choices and engage in regular physical activity children will be more likely to do the same.  You can’t expect your children to make changes that you are not willing to make yourself.

Be Active Together

Turn off the television and find activities that your family can do together and make it a family ritual.  Take a walk in the park, go swimming, shoot hoops, learn to play tennis or golf. Even going bowling or playing the Wii together promotes physical activity.  Keep frisbees, hula hoops and other activity promoting games around.  Making choices that promote activity, such as taking the stairs and parking farther away are also good examples to set for children.

Throw Out The Junk food

You can’t expect your child to turn down junk food when it’s in the house.  Avoid buying  high fat foods, bags of chips, sweets and soda.  Keep plenty of healthy snacks, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grain products, pretzels, yogurt, and sugar free popsicles on hand.  If you do have junk food at home, portion it out in baggies, buy 100 calorie snack packs or store in the highest cabinet to avoid easy access.  When visiting fast food restaurants help your child learn portion control and how to chose items that are lower in fat and calories.  It is also important to not totally eliminate all sweets and junk food.  This can lead to sneaking and binge eating.

Make It Fun

Think of creative ways to make healthy cooking fun.  Have a family cooking contest.  Make a fruit pizza or funny faces out of healthy foods. Host a pedometer contest with several families to see who gets the most steps in a week.  Most importantly, plan your meals together, cook together and eat together.

Praise, Praise And More Praise

Children who are overweight tend to have negative self esteem, which can lead to depression.   Parents must work to promote a positive self image from an early age.  Always focus on your child’s strengths and build upon them.  Help children to find activitiesthat interest them.  If your child enjoys arts and crafts, sign them up for an art class.  If it’s music, join the school band or look into private lessons.  Ensure your child that you believe in them and their dreams.  Praise your child for success and for putting forth good effort. Most importantly, avoid criticizing your child for making poor food and activity choices.  Excessive criticism and nit-picking can backfire, leading to an increase in poor choices.   Parents often feel they can be brutally honest with their children, when in fact this can decrease self esteem.  Instead, praise your child for making appropriate choices.

Avoid Using Physical Activity And Food As A Punishment Or Reward

Remember the days of running laps for talking out in gym class?  Push-ups for not running far enough?  This type of punishment leads to exercise aversion.  Also, many parents mistakenly use physical activity as a reward for positive behavior. For example, if you have a good week we can ride bikes together this weekend.  Instead, physical activity, especially family activity, should be a regular part of your week, not a reward.  In addition, avoid rewarding kids for good behavior or trying to stop bad behavior with sweets or treats.  This will teach a child to cope with problems by eating.

Consult With Healthcare Professionals

If you are concerned about your child’s health and activity level, do not hesitate to discuss it with your pediatrician or other healthcare professional.  Perhaps your child would benefit from participation in a healthy lifestyle program.  If you fear your child may be depressed, anxious, suffers from low self esteem, or may have a more serious eating disorder, consult with a child psychologist or mental health professional.


Dr. Kelly McGraw Browning, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Pediatric Psychological Associates, a private practice dedicated to helping children and families with a variety of behavioral, developmental and emotional needs.  Dr. McGraw is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Spalding University.  Her website is: www.helpingkidsreachhigher.com

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