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Get Your Spud Moving

Ten expert tips to get your kid off the couch

Focused on Health - July 2009

By Rachel Winters

Most kids seem to be born to run. They are interested in physical activity at a young age. In kindergarten they are begging to join sports teams, and they have the latest and greatest in athletic equipment. Five minutes before dinner they want to tear around the block on their bike “just one more time, pleeeeazzzze?”

Other kids may not desire to be active. These children want to do activities like painting, drawing, playing an instrument or watching television. Even though these activities are impressive (except too much TV!), they may not afford these kids enough physical exercise to start them early on the path to cancer prevention.

“Kids should become physically active at an early age. Current recommendations suggest that kids ages six to 17 should exercise at an intensity high enough to raise their heart rate for at least 60 minutes a day, five days a week,” says Daniel Hughes, Ph.D., an instructor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science. “Children under six should maintain natural, daily physical activity patterns like running, jumping and skipping, and be discouraged from being excessively inactive.”

Exercise is important to cancer prevention because of the way the body works. During exercise, the heart is forced to pump faster. This causes the body’s blood flow to increase, which helps the immune system prevent infections and get rid of factors that may cause cancer.

The role of exercise in cancer prevention

Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising are directly related to helping prevent cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. This is especially true when it comes to colon, prostate, breast, endometrial and pancreatic cancers.

Increased activity also helps tissue absorb important nutrients from food.  Most importantly, exercise helps control weight by using extra calories and burning fat.  Getting children started on a physically active lifestyle can help offset future public health burden.

Adults may know that they should be exercising, and they may know that they should encourage their families to join the fun as well. The numbers, however, show a different story:

  • 38% of adults do not get enough exercise
  • 24% report no leisure time activity at all

“If you look at the last 50 to 100 years, we’ve become a much less active society,” Hughes says. “Humans naturally evolved to be very active and store fat, because there were times that people had to be able to live for days without food sources. Now, people are moving less and eating more. When you go against this evolutionary genetic programming, the way we have in recent years, bad things are bound to happen to your body.”

None of this means that you need to make your children wear spandex and stay all day at the gym. What is important is getting them to play in a manner that makes their heart pump faster for a long period of time. When beginning a fitness routine for yourself or for your munchkin, the key is finding a truly enjoyable activity, not just one that you “should” do.  Don’t hesitate to try different ways of adding daily exercise and don’t get discouraged. Something will work for you and your family.

#1 tip to get your kid moving

“The absolute best way to get your kid to be more active is to get off of the couch yourself,” Hughes says.

Children copy their parents when it comes to both eating well and exercising. If either you or your child is inactive, do something together! This can be a great start and set a good example. It also can be a way to bond with your child.

  • Sign-up for a martial arts class together
  • Join an outdoor adventure or running club
  • Volunteer to coach a soccer team and encourage your kid to play
  • Try something new like rollerblading or biking

“People who are active tend to have active children,” Hughes says. “If I were counseling families, my number one recommendation would be to exercise together, at least for some of the time. One of the most successful ways to change your child’s exercise habits is to involve the entire family.”

Even when parents enjoy exercising, it can be difficult to get kids to exercise if they simply do not like to be active. Hughes introduces 10 creative ways to get the whole family moving. Follow these tips to help your child develop healthy exercise habits that will last a lifetime.

Ten ways to get your spud off the couch

  1. Make it a contest between you and the kids to see who can run faster, do more push-ups, sit-ups or jumping jacks and give the winner non-food related prizes. Remember that kids love to compete, and don’t be afraid to ‘lose’ once in a while.
  2. Bike with your children to school instead of driving a car.
  3. Bring a ball or a Frisbee when you go to picnics or the beach. Makeup a game to get everyone moving.
  4. Join a swim club as a family, or visit your community pool. Swimming helps to get the entire body moving, plus it helps beat the heat.
  5. Plan a carwash together. Help the kids decide beforehand what they will do with the money they’ve earned.
  6. Give gifts that encourage activity for birthdays and holidays, like rollerblades, ice skates or other athletic equipment.
  7. Turn on the music and have a dance party in the house if it’s a rainy day. Encourage the whole family to get dressed-up in funny costumes or old clothes, chose oldies or something more hip.  
  8. Plan vacations that include new ways to exercise, like hiking, off-road cycling or kayaking.
  9. Try Wii Fit. It can be really good exercise for the entire family. It helps kids who love video and computer games be active.
  10. Encourage your kids to get-up and move – do jumping jacks, use a hula hoop, shadow box or even jump rope during commercial breaks when they watch television.

A head start on exercise

Obesity is a serious health concern for children and teenagers. Over the past 30 years, obesity has increased in all age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In children ages two to five years, obesity has increased more than 7%. For children ages six to 11 years, it has increased almost 11%, and for children ages 12-19 years, it has increased almost 13%.

Obesity can lead to cancer because the body can convert fat cells into the hormone estrogen in both men and women. Certain forms of estrogen can increase the chance of cell mutations throughout the body, and cell mutation leads to cancer.

“Damage to the body that causes cancer can potentially start happening early,” Hughes says. “As a parent, you need to help your kids develop healthy habits. Teaching them to exercise is a lesson that will last a lifetime. Once your children can walk, they should be up and moving.”

Preventing obesity in children is important because obese children and teenagers are more likely to become obese adults. One study found that about 80% of children who were overweight at 10 – 15 years were obese adults at age 25. Another study found that 25% of obese adults were overweight as children and that obesity in adulthood is likely to be more severe if they were overweight before age eight .

“There is an important difference between physical activity and exercise,” Hughes says. “Being physically active is important, but in addition to simply walking the dog or going on a class trip, kids need to do moderate to vigorous activities that actually elevate their heart rates. Exercise for kids, like with adults, should have a certain level of intensity. Standing around in gym class doesn’t count."

Related Links

Healthy Living – Exercise (M. D. Anderson)

Diet and Physical Activity: What's the Cancer Connection? (American Cancer Society)

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center