Health is the culmination of physical, mental, and social wellbeing, influenced by our daily habits and interactions with others. It is no surprise that we develop a number of these habits and behaviors from a very young age, which can carry implications for the remainder of our lives. Children are malleable beings, therefore ensuring that we do right by them as parents, teachers, and coaches to encourage healthy habits and behaviors from the jump is of utmost importance.
What Are The Issues?
Children nowadays are confronted with different issues than they were in decades past, mainly by way of technology and social media. It is not uncommon to see an 8-year old with an iPhone or a middle schooler with an astronomical number of Instagram followers. Not only are the first or second generations of children growing up with this technology, but parents too are in the early stages of learning how to raise a child with them. The long-term ramifications of increased screen time and decreased physical activity in children remains to be seen. However, we know that they are already posing some major issues.
We've known that too much screen time and being sedentary is unhealthy for a while now; television had wreaked havoc on children's health long before phones and tablets were ever around. Some older research from the late 1990s and early 2000s looked at the correlation between metabolic syndrome and time watching television in children. What they found was fascinating. Metabolic syndrome cases directly increased as daily screen time hours increased, no matter how much physical activity occurred. Children who watched television for 3 hours a day or more were 2-3 times more likely to have metabolic syndrome than those who averaged 1 hour less a day, even if they had similar physical activity levels outside of that.
Fast forward to 2012, screen time for the average British child was around 6.1 hours per day, 7.8 hours per day for Canadian children, and 7.5 hours per day for American children. That is roughly 55% of their waking hours! Further research is being conducted today, and it appears that these numbers are continuing to climb, particularly in the stranglehold of a pandemic that's forced nearly all learning to go remote.
Today, most children don't get the recommended amount of physical activity, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is 60 moderate to vigorous minutes a day (as of 2010) (3). While screen time is much to blame for this, so too is the declining number of schools that have physical education (P.E.) classes for students. It is well known that P.E. reduces childhood obesity, creates higher self-esteem in children, and provides and positive environment for social interaction (4). An entire article could be written about the negative mental health and social skill aspects P.E. cuts have had on children, but it easy enough to assume it is not good.
Adults, too, are suffering from screen time overload and lack of physical activity these days. Couple that with the overconsumption of processed nutrient-void foods and stressful work schedules, and it is no mystery that our population is becoming increasingly sick. These habits, behaviors, and conscious or unconscious decisions can negatively impact children who don't even have a choice on what food comes home from the grocery store, or if mom and dad choose to swing by the fast-food drive-through for dinner instead of cooking a meal at home. Parental obesity is strongly associated with childhood obesity thus, parents have to give their children a fighting chance to stay healthy and promote a clean eating, physically active lifestyle.
Healthy Habits and Tips:
With all of these issues in mind, some steps can be taken to develop healthy habits In children to better serve their health for now and well into the future.
1) Limit Screen Time
The detriments of too much screen time will be researched for years to come, but to avoid some of the negative outcomes, it is a good idea to limit children's exposure as soon as possible. Remote learning may make this increasingly difficult during the Covid Pandemic. However, time spent staring glossy-eyed into a screen outside of that can be managed. Parental controls can be put into place on most phones, tablets, and computers to limit both the total time spent on the device and when the devices are even available for operation. This is especially important in the few hours before bed as sleep is one of the most important aspects of childhood development, which leads to the next topic.
2) Sleep Like A Baby
Children often resent bed-times imposed by their parents and would likely stay up all night to play video games or snap chat with their friends if left unattended. It can be difficult to enforce, but when asleep schedule is put into place that allows for optimal rest, children will likely perform better in all areas of the school, athletics, and social life. An exact recommendation for sleep in children is not universally defined. However, some recommendations are as follows: 1-3 years require 12-14h, preschoolers 3-5 years require 11-12h, school-aged children 6-12 years require 10-11h. Recommendations for teenagers age 13-18 years appear to be even more variable. However, an educated assumption would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 8-9h. Having coached athletes of this population for the majority of my career has shown me the negative effects on performance when sleep is inadequate.
3) Cook Together
Cooking is a skill that throughout one's life will save a lot of money for a few reasons. Consistently eating out is expensive, and while some restaurants do a tremendous job of offering healthy options, most prioritize taste and palatability over nutrition (understandably so), which means more calorically dense foods and a greater risk of medical issues down the road. Parents who can take the time to teach and cook with their children are providing a valuable skill set for a lifetime as well as getting some quality bonding time. Making healthy meals that taste great and teaching children why nutrition is important is a huge component of overall health.
4) Get Outdoors
Last but certainly not least is making it a habit to get children outdoors every single day. Going for hikes, playing games, or walking down to the park are all great options that give children a chance to explore and get some much needed physical activity. If the weather is an issue for those living in colder climates, embracing the elements and doing things like skiing, sledding, and ice skating are all great ways to make the best of the situation. Children don't always need structured play such as competitive team sports, and while those are fantastic options, taking a stroll around the neighborhood together is a no-cost easy way to get moving.
In sum, it is important to help children develop healthy habits from an early age so that they are equipped for optimal health their entire lives. Screen time and social media are major issues nowadays that lead to sedentary lifestyles and poor overall health in many individuals. While these things are not completely avoidable, taking a balanced approach and teaching children how to live healthy lives is critical.