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Wellness Center

Creating a Healthy Home Environment

As adults, we need to help our children get off to a good start. The earliest risks for childhood obesity begin during pregnancy. Excess weight gain, diabetes, and smoking during pregnancy are not just health risks for the mother, they also put children at risk for obesity early in life. Keeping pregnancy weight gain within recommended limits will help prevent diabetes in the mother. Stopping cigarette smoking and abstaining from alcohol and drug use will protect the health of the mother and the baby.

The earliest decisions regarding food, activity, and television viewing occur in the home. Parents and other caregivers play a key role in making good choices for themselves and their loved one. Children and teenagers look to their mothers and fathers and other caregivers to model healthy lifestyle habits, and adults need to teach by example. In some households, several generations may live together or have responsibility for children at different times during the day. This sharing of duties requires coordination and consistency in activities and habits related to food shopping and preparation, access to physical activity, and limits on television and computer use.

Both young children and teenagers learn from the choices they see adults make. One way to help children learn is to involve all family members in family-based physical activities and in planning, shopping for and preparing meals. These activities provide both an education in healthy nutrition and exercise, as well as a critical foundation for how to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Healthy Food Choices
The first decision that parents make about what to feed their child occurs during pregnancy. After the baby is born, mothers should breastfeed whenever possible because it provides the highest quality of nutrition and helps to prevent early childhood obesity.46 By age two, children should be drinking low-fat or non-fat milk. As parents, we are in charge of the foods we provide to our children. Creativity with food preparation can often solve the problems presented by picky eaters. Adults also should offer children small portions and show them how to eat slowly and enjoy their meal.

Healthy Teenagers
The teenage years present unique challenges. Adolescence is a time of vulnerability to the development of psychiatric disorders, including eating disorders, depression, drug and alcohol abuse. Adolescent boys and girls are subjected to significant peer pressure related to eating and exercise, and most school systems provide limited opportunities for physical activity. Teenagers often drink more carbonated and caffeinated beverages and eat more fast foods. These multiple stresses and unhealthy habits make teenagers particularly vulnerable to becoming sedentary, overweight and obese. An obese teenager has a greater than 70% risk of becoming an obese adult.34 Parents should guide their teenagers to become fit and healthy adults while being cautious not to trigger unhealthy eating behaviors or eating disorders.

Physical Activity
Scheduling time for the recommended levels of physical activity is essential to overall health. Physical activity can help control weight, reduce risk for many diseases (heart disease and some cancers), strengthen your bones and muscles, improve your mental health, and increase your chances of living longer.51 Adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.51 Aerobic activity such as brisk walking or general gardening should be done in episodes of at least 10 minutes and preferably should be spread throughout the week. For children and teenagers, the recommendation is for one hour of daily physical activity that includes vigorous activities and activities that strengthen their bones.51 Making physical activities fun can affect how children and teenagers respond to changes in their routine. Programmed, repetitious exercise may work for adults, but it rarely works for children. Look for ways to add physical activity throughout the day. When possible, parents should walk with children to and from school, and children should have scheduled time to play. Because safety is a real concern in many neighborhoods, citizens should talk with their local elected officials and members of law enforcement to find ways to improve safety so everyone can walk or play outdoors.

Television and Computer Use
In recent years, we have witnessed an explosion of technological advances in televisions, home entertainment centers, computers, and video game systems. A new report released in 201054 found that nearly two-thirds of kids aged eight to 18 say the TV is usually on during meals and nearly half report the TV is left on most of the time in their home. Seven in ten young people have a TV in their bedroom and 50% also have a console video game player in their room. Overall, eight to 18 year-olds spend over seven hours per day using entertainment media (TV, video games, computers) amounting to more than 53 hours a week.

The hours that adults, teenagers, and children are spending in front of a television or computer screen contribute to their sedentary lifestyle and increase their risk for obesity. In particular, the more time children spend watching television, the more likely they are to eat while doing so and the more likely they are to eat the high-calorie food that are heavily advertised to both adults and children.

Most parents either do not set limitations on screen time or do not enforce them. Studies have shown that when parents establish rules and implement them, screen time declines by two hours per day, leaving opportunities for more physical activity. Parents need to be role models by limiting their own television time and spending more time with their children.

Source:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The Surgeon Gereral's Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation.  Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, January 2010.  Available at http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/.

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Last Reviewed: Feb 12, 2010

Phyllis L Pirie, PhD Phyllis L Pirie, PhD
Professor of Health Behaviors & Health Promotion
College of Public Health
The Ohio State University