Taking your children’s health in hand

So you’re pretty much in shape now. You’ve understood the value of being active, have embarked on an exercise programme that has allowed you to progress slowly, but steadily, and now you are hopefully ready to make it a permanent feature in your life.

One of the benefits of your newfound activity is weight control. In the face of the ever-increasing worldwide problem of obesity, which is reaching epidemic proportions, exercise’s role in weight management is clearly an essential health tool.

Obesity in South Africa

Obesity afflicts people in both industrial and developing countries. It damages our health and is associated with many chronic diseases of lifestyle such as heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer, arthritis, and adult onset (Type 2) diabetes. And it’s not just adults that are overweight. The number of overweight children in South Africa, is on the increase.

According to the popular South African newspaper The Teacher (July, 2001), 93 percent of learners who attend school and live in electrified urban or rural areas, have regular access to television and watch it for an average of three hours a day.

This, according to the study, is equal to at least 50 percent more than the time spent on any other out-of-school activity, including homework, being with friends or reading. Combine this with the fact that school sport and physical education are becoming less and less important in schools. Many of them is actually doing away with physical activity altogether - a recipe for disaster.

Basically, this means that the responsibility of children’s health and well being, is falling more and more into the hands of parents or guardians.

Obese children become obese adults

Research shows that obese children are at increased risk of becoming obese adults, indicating the importance of prevention and treatment for obesity in childhood. Heart disease risks associated with obesity can begin in early childhood.

Supporting this statement, are the findings of a recent study by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, USA. It was found that among overweight children (5 to 15 years old), 61percent are already at risk for cardiovascular disease due to lifestyle associated risk factors.

And it’s not just heart disease; obesity is also associated with psychological stress and social rejection, which can cause great unhappiness to the child and affect their social development. Reaching and maintaining an appropriate body weight is important for physical, mental and emotional health.

It is recommended that as a parent, you focus on small, but permanent, sustainable changes in eating and activity.

Here are some simple guidelines:

1. Be a good role model

What sort of role model do you provide? Parents who model healthy eating and physical activity habits can have a significant positive influence on the health of their children. Children who eat regular meals do better nutritionally and eat a variety of foods than children who merely snack.

Provide balanced, healthy, appealing meals at meal times and then let your child choose how much to eat. Children should not be forced to finish their food or eat foods that they hate, since this can result in unhealthy habits later in life.

It is important that children learn how to control hunger and wait for their meal to be served. This promotes development of the child's internal cues of hunger, appetite and satiety. Don’t use desserts and sweets as rewards.

2. Composition of a child’s diet

A high fat diet (especially animal fat) is a no-no when trying to lose weight. However, highly restrictive diets that forbid a child's favourite foods are not recommended. Never put your child on a low kilojoule diet, since you may interfere with the natural growth process.

It is important that the child’s dietary fat intake is lowered, but the total kilojoule intake should be maintained by increasing the intake of foods such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, breads, pasta and potatoes. These foods provide energy for your child, which makes him/her more likely to be active.

3. Snacking

A jar filled with sweets or cookies is a common cue to eat, especially if a child has a sweet tooth. Whilst it’s not necessary to deprive your child of sweets, only make them available at certain times, otherwise the temptation will be there to eat them at any time. Rather have healthy snack options, such as fruit on display.

4. Prioritise family meal times

Family meals are a time not only to eat, but also to talk, share and discuss. Set a good example by eating a wide variety of foods and providing a pleasant eating environment. Try sometimes to involve your child in a fun way to help plan a menu and prepare the food.

Teach your child to eat slowly so that they taste and enjoy their food and recognize the feeling of fullness. Make sure that meal times are pleasant with conversation and that they are not used for scolding or criticizing. This may affect a child's current and future eating habits.

5. Encourage regular activity

Again, the best way to do this, is to be regularly active yourself. Arrange fun, active family activities during the weekend. This is what your children will grow to enjoy and treasure. Restrict the time they spend behind a computer or in front of the TV.

By now you know that physical inactivity is a major risk factor for the development of other risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and a low level of HDL ("good") cholesterol. It also increases the risk of developing coronary artery disease and a stroke, as well as making weight control much more difficult. This is not the health status you would want for your child.

Guidelines from the American Heart Association


  • Help children to engage in regular, daily physical activity of moderate intensity. Ideally, 30 minutes of activity should be accumulated most days of the week.
  • Allow children to develop an enjoyment of physical activity and find out what particularly appeals to them. Don’t encourage competitiveness, since this may put them off.
  • Ensure they also take part in vigorous physical activity that promotes the development and maintenance of cardio-respiratory (heart and respiratory system) fitness.
  • It is important that children are taught to practice self-management skills (such as goal setting, monitoring, barrier minimization), for maintaining active lifestyles.
  • Children need to know how much physical activity, and which types, are associated with the benefits (social, emotional, health and physical). However, this information needs to be provided in a light, entertaining way, otherwise exercise will be seen as a burden or a task rather than a fun activity.
  • Increase a child’s physical activity levels by reducing the amount of time in non-school sedentary behaviours such as working on the computer, watching TV or playing video games.
  • Another very important role of exercise, is to promote optimal physical development. Therefore, encourage extra-curricular activities that increase physical activity.

(Liesel Powell, Health24)

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