Punt the Junk: Five Ways to Prevent Childhood Obesity at Home

Did you know that 1 in 3 children ages 2-19 are overweight and obese and have a 70% chance of becoming overweight adults? This increases to 80% if one or both parents are overweight and obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, creating many immediate and long-term effects on children’s health and well-being, including higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, and other serious chronic diseases. To help combat this growth in childhood obesity, the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) and Department of Pediatrics along with the Minnesota Vikings Children’s Fund developed a three-year program, the Vikings Fitness Playbook, to improve heart health and teach children and parents about healthy eating choices and fitness.

There are ten children between ages 8-16 and their parents currently enrolled in the Vikings Fitness Playbook program. These children are referred to the program by their doctors because they are in the 95th to 99th weight percentile. The goal is to try to influence these children before puberty. The ages of 8-16 are what many call the “sweet spot window.” Research has shown that if fitness modifications are made within this window (before puberty), the cardiovascular system can fully recover – as if a problem never existed. The Vikings Fitness Playbook program also gets parents equally involved because if parents model healthy habits, children are more likely to succeed in overcoming obesity.

Defensive and Offensive Plays for Weight Management and Physical Fitness

In the spirit of football, the Vikings Fitness Playbook program is built around a simple two-page “playbook” with a game plan, offensive and defensive plays.

The “Game Plan” offers three main plays:

  1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  2. Start the day with a good breakfast
  3. Get physical.

Defensive plays focus on healthy eating:

  1. “Punt the junk. Limit high fat, high sugar foods”
  2. “Tackle your thirst. Choose water instead of juice or soda.”
  3. “Pass the fruits and vegetables. Fill ½ of your plate with power foods.”

Offensive plays boost physical activity:

  1. Take more steps each day
  2. Use your Step Counter and aim for 8,000 steps per day
  3. Do jumping jacks during television commercial breaks.

Every Tuesday night for 12 weeks, students of CEHD’s School of Kinesiology and a registered dietician meet with the children and their families. During these weekly meetings, children and their parents are provided a meal, meet with a dietician to assess how they did the previous week and identify food and activity goals for the next week, and participate in physical activities with their student PALs (Physical Activity Leaders).

Vikings players occasionally join in the activities. Between the weekly sessions, student PALs follow-up with families to check-in. After the 12-weeks, children and their families are monitored for another six months and encouraged to continue with the new diet and activity behaviors they learned during the course of the program.

Five Ways Parents Can Prevent Childhood Obesity At Home

As the school year comes to an end, it’s often assumed that weight gain will not be a concern with the warm summer weather enticing children to get outside and play. In actuality, weight gain is greater in the summer than during the school year. Why? Without the structure that school provides, many children have time to lounge around and raid the fridge and cupboards while parents are at work. Five simple ways parents can keep children active and eating healthy during those long summer days include:

  1. Assess the snacks in your fridge and cupboards. Throw out the unhealthy snacking options and replace them with ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables to make it easier for children to make good choices.
  2. Have children join you on grocery trips so you can look at healthier options together.
  3. Go on family walks after dinner.
  4. Encourage your child to be more active throughout the day by setting small goals or challenges like how many stairs can you take today?
  5. Don’t completely eliminate treats. Instead, set limits like only one cookie rather than a whole row or plate.

Implementing simple, concrete goals is the most effective way to adopt a healthier lifestyle. The Vikings Fitness Playbook program will welcome a new group of children and their families in Spring 2013.

–Don Dengel, Associate Professor, Exercise Physiology
University of Minnesota
College of Education and Human Development

Don Dengel

About the Author

Don Dengel, Ph.D.

  • Associate Professor
  • Exercise Physiology
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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