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Winter Fitness Tips for Overweight Children

By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA

Overweight and obesity in children are now considered a serious public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the last three decades. One in three kids between the ages of 6 and 19 are now overweight or obese.

Childhood overweight and obesity now outrank drug abuse and smoking as the leading health-related concerns among US parents. The consequences of carrying extra weight throughout childhood include an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension, joint problems, and heart disease earlier in life. Overweight and obese children also are more likely to have a negative body image, low self-esteem, and depression, according to the CDC and American Heart Association

Readily available junk food, fewer physical education classes in schools, and too much time spent sitting and staring at electronic devices are factors that make it difficult to combat obesity. Getting children to exercise regularly is challenging for parents, especially in the winter when outdoor activities may be unappealing due to cold weather. Before smartphones and computers, snowy days meant sledding, snowball fights, and building snowmen for children and teens. Today, technology wins out over fun in the snow, with many kids choosing computer and video games, TV, online chatting or texting with friends, and surfing the internet instead of outdoor activities. How can parents encourage overweight and obese children and teens to exercise regularly during the winter?

While outside activities in the snow do burn calories, they only serve as a fun alternative when the weather cooperates. In addition, outdoor activities aren't always possible due to very cold temperatures or medical conditions. (For example, asthma can be triggered by strenuous activity in cold weather.) There are many indoor exercise options to encourage winter weight loss, including the following:

  • Bring outdoor fun indoors using a Wii for simulated skiing and skating, as well as other sports such as tennis and boxing.
  • Use a Wii or PlayStation Move for dancing competitions and other active games.
  • Visit indoor community centers and gyms hosting children's activities, such as yoga for kids and teens, dance, gymnastics, martial arts for kids, roller skating, and ice skating.
  • Join family fitness programs at local community centers and gyms to motivate all family members to stay active together.
  • Buy exercise and dance DVDs, or find on-demand fitness programs geared toward children and teens. Keeping younger children active indoors often is easier because there are many DVDs for physical activity specifically for young children, including Zumba and yoga for kids, and other dance and exercise programs with their favorite Sesame Street characters.
  • Try out an indoor trampoline park. These facilities recently have increased in popularity and offer obstacle courses, fitness classes, and free playtime. Jumping on the bouncy trampoline surface is easier on the joints, which may bother some overweight and obese children. Small indoor trampolines designed for one person are available for indoor home use as well.
  • Go swimming. Many gyms and community centers have indoor pools where they offer a variety of year-round activities for kids and families.

Parents of older children and teens are likely to have a more difficult time motivating them to exercise, since family-oriented fitness activities may not seem “cool” to them. Teens are more attached to their electronic devices, chatting with friends and playing online games, often for several hours per day. A December 2016 study published online in The Journal of Pediatrics found that five hours or more of any screen time (smartphone, TV, computer) significantly increased the likelihood of obesity in both male and female high schoolers. This excessive amount of screen time also was associated with greater consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, insufficient exercise, and inadequate sleep—all risk factors for obesity. Reducing daily screen time is important to combat overweight and obesity; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two hours or less of daily screen time for teenagers.

How can parents motivate teens to get moving more? Try combining screen time with movement. Exercise during commercial breaks when watching TV, doing jumping jacks, push-ups, or marching/jogging in place. Encourage teens to combine chat times with friends with fitness challenges, like seeing who can hold a plank the longest. Provide incentives for teens to decrease screen time with monetary or other rewards (eg, 30 minutes of exercise for 30 minutes of screen time).

Lastly, be aware that overweight and obese children and teens are likely to be more self-conscious than others, and may be very reluctant to join sports teams or public exercise activities. Starting and maintaining exercise at home can help build confidence and self-esteem before joining public group activities. January is a great time to start new fitness-related activities in your community since many overweight and out-of-shape people of all ages make New Year’s resolutions to exercise more. Exercising with similar-sized peers can help kids feel less self-conscious about their weight and provide social motivation to stick with exercising.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care researcher in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.