Our kids are in trouble.
The epidemic of childhood obesity is fast creating a national health crisis. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 15 percent of American children, or nearly 8 million youngsters, are overweight. That figure has more than doubled since the early 1970s.
To say nothing of the mental torment it inflicts on kids, being overweight can lead to a host of serious health problems from diabetes and sleep apnea to joint problems and gallbladder disease.
Here's something even more chilling. Some experts contend that this might be the first generation of kids to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
We hear statistics like this on such a regular basis that we run the risk of being desensitized to them. It's time to pull back and look at this issue with fresh eyes. After all, these are our kids we're talking about.
First, it may be helpful to understand the mechanisms behind the rising rates of childhood obesity so that we can make more informed choices in helping our own kids.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the increase in overweight children is linked to growing social prosperity, which had led to children eating more and exercising less. Kids are immersed in playing increasingly compelling video games on increasingly wider-screen TVs - while munching on increasingly fatter foods.
It's easier than you may think to help your kids live healthier lives. Here are five strategies to do just that:
Set a better example
While 15 percent of kids are overweight, that number pales in comparison to adults, a whopping 60 percent of whom are overweight or obese.
A recent survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation found that, more than anyone else, parents have the most potential to influence their children's behavior, including their eating habits. Parents were chosen by kids as their most important role model, outshining "rock stars" and "celebrities."
This survey confirms what we've long known: Kids watch what their parents do and they follow much of that behavior. That certainly includes eating and exercise. Research has found strong links between the food mothers eat and the choices made by their children.
We cannot slink into the couch and cavalierly command our kids to "go play, go get some exercise." Part of helping your child commit to better fitness is becoming a positive role model by making your own exercise a priority and by playing with your child more often.
Exercising with your children is a great way to spend quality time with them, improve their health and make your own exercise more rewarding. Staying fit can improve your child's self-esteem and decrease their risk of developing serious illnesses, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
You can also set a good example by eating better. Improving your diet needn't be unpleasant or unpalatable either. Health food isn't what it used be. There are more sumptuous options out there than ever before; it's just a matter of taking the time to find them.
Limit tube time
The average American child gets less than one hour of exercise per week, but watches more than 30 hours of television. Thirty hours. The mind verily boggles!
A University of Buffalo study found that a child's risk of obesity doubles for every hour of TV he or she watches each week; for many kids, that's a whole lot of doubling going on. You may consider striking a deal with your children. For every two hours of TV viewing, they must engage in one hour of fun physical activity. The operative word there is "fun."
Make it fun (really fun)
According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 75 percent of high school students do not attend physical education classes. Much of that has to do with the fact that it isn't fun. If it were, more kids would attend. Parents, coaches and teachers need to band together and commit to keeping sports fun and challenging for kids.
If kids who are overweight are having fun, weight loss comes as a natural consequence of the activity, rather than the focus. Make having fun the singular focus of your child's relationship with physical activity.
"Kids who enjoy sports and exercise tend to stay active throughout their lives. And staying fit can help improve your child's self-esteem and decrease the risk of serious illnesses (such as heart disease and stroke) later in life," says Dr. Steven Dowshen, chief medical editor for KidsHealth.com.
Expose kids to new activities that they truly enjoy - and that they excel in. I was an overweight, gangly mouth-breather in grade school. I hated sports. That is, until I played my first game of soccer. My parents took the time to help me discover my bliss, and once I did, I couldn't be stopped! I was even known to sleep with my soccer ball.
Never before have there been more sports available to kids: ballet, lacrosse, water polo, soccer, golf, tennis. Keep trying new activities until you find the one that clicks with your kid.
Strike a junk food deal
Each year, the average American child eats 28 pounds of french fries and consumes 868 cans of soda a year. (Yes, you read that right). You may want to consider this approach: No junk food during the week, but on weekends, allow your kids to slack off and have the bad stuff. That way, they're consuming less overall junk food, and you haven't made it as taboo, which only increases their desire to have it. Another related strategy to help kids eat better is not to deny the "bad foods," but merely to insist that they have the "good stuff" first. The idea is that after eating the good, they will have less room for the bad. That's not a bad suggestion for parents, either.
Take time to eat together
In our culture, we tend to view food as a tool rather than as nourishment. We often eat on the run and give little or no thought to what we're putting into our bodies or how we're doing that. We need to give more reverence to food - and to mealtimes. Establish daily meal and snack times, and eat together as frequently as possible. Some research has shown that kids who sit down to eat with their families develop healthier dietary habits. This is a tip that can benefit parents as well.
Parents, it's a now-or-never proposition to keep our children healthy and fit; their lives depend on it. Exercising with your children is a great way to spend quality time with them, improve their health and make your own exercise more rewarding. Staying fit can improve your child's self-esteem and decrease their risk of developing serious illnesses, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
We cannot blame this problem on video games or TV commercials or Tony the Tiger - or the "resistance" put up by our children. That merely disempowers us. The solution to the problem of childhood obesity in this country - resulting from too little exercise and poor nutrition - rests squarely on the shoulders of parents.
Let's all take the concerted and consistent action necessary to improve the health and fitness of our children. After all, they are our most precious asset.
Eric Harr, fitness contributor for CBS News, is the best-selling author of several books including 'Triathlon Training in 4 Hours a Week '(Rodale). As a new ambassador for CARE, he is training for the Hawaii Ironman World Championship in October to raise money and awareness to fight global poverty. He hosts a new health/fitness podcast at www.harrcast.com. For details, visit: www.ericharr.com.