Keeping Kids Fit in a Pandemic is a Family Affair

Erin Stump leads a Tigers on Track fitness club workout
Erin Stump leads a Tigers on Track fitness club workout through Zoom from the Children's Therapy Center.

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, MU Health Care pediatrician and weight management specialist Julie Benard, MD, has fielded more questions than usual from parents worried their kids are gaining extra weight. With some local schools opting for virtual learning, children miss out on gym classes and recess while having easy access to their own kitchens for unlimited snacking.

Julie Benard, MD
Julie Benard, MD

These habits are likely to get worse in the winter months as the weather limits outside activities.

“Parents are noticing that their kids generally aren’t as active and they’re doing a lot more on their screens now because they’re home more,” said Benard, who specializes in treating childhood obesity. “One of the biggest things we worry about long-term is cardiovascular disease. We know children who struggle with obesity as children are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease later on. That includes having heart attacks and strokes earlier in life.”

Bernard advises parents to model the healthy behavior and not just dictate it.

“If healthy lifestyle changes are going to stick,” Benard said, “it needs to be a whole family involvement.”

Benard offered these practical tips for parents concerned about their kids maintaining a healthy weight.

  • When you explain lifestyle changes to your children, frame the discussion by highlighting the benefits. Use terms like “health” and “strength” rather than “weight.” For example, family members are going to start drinking water rather than soda because they want to be healthy, not because they want to lose weight. “What we don’t want kids to do is focus on counting calories or getting on a scale and checking their weight,” Benard said.
  • Make exercise fun. The goal is 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but it doesn’t need to be one grueling session. Break the activities into manageable chunks throughout the day and make them enjoyable. If you’re stuck inside, you can play motion-controlled video games on the Wii or Xbox Kinect system, hold a family dance party or set up an indoor obstacle course.
  • Appeal to your kids’ competitive instincts. This doesn’t mean pitting one child against the other in feats of strength or endurance — unless you enjoy refereeing disputes — but rather challenging each child to improve from week to week. For example, set the goal of doing 10 jumping jacks during a commercial break this week, and then increase the total to 15 next week. “That highlights them getting stronger and being able to exercise for longer periods of time,” Benard said. “That is encouraging for them.”

Turn to the professionals. If you need some help getting your child to live a healthier lifestyle, ask your primary care doctor about MU Health Care’s Tigers on Track program. If your child qualifies, he or she will be assessed by Benard or another expert and join a program that includes doctors, dietitians, physical therapists and social workers who work with families to come up with a blueprint for better health. As part of the program, physical therapists lead regular Fitness Club workout sessions. Those workouts used to be held in person, but during the pandemic they are conducted over the Zoom video-conferencing app.

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