The summer is over. The streets are filling up with the families returning from summer vacations. The activities of summer, running, playing, and swimming have given every child a healthy glow. They have built up their muscles and grown taller and leaner as they spent many hours outdoors. These boys and girls have gained a little head start in the race against childhood and even adult obesity. Now is the time to think about how we can give our children the ability to hold on to the gains of the summer.
As school begins, the younger children are going to be spending full days in school buildings with very little play space. The older girls and boys will be studying until almost bedtime, with very little time for physical activity. Many mothers report to me that the first few weeks after the summer, the children are moody and irritable. The freedom of outdoor play is no longer possible. The physical energy that was burned off each day during the active vacation days becomes pent up, causing an emotional letdown.
There are specific steps we can take to help our boys and girls adjust to the school routine, remain leaner, and, at the same time, maintain the healthy bones and muscles developed during the summer.
Exercise is not a luxury. It is a requirement. Everyone needs it for both physical and emotional health to be maintained. As a child’s body grows, the stress and strain put on the muscles and bones during activity make them grow straighter and stronger.
Did you ever see a leg right after a cast was removed? It is much skinnier and weaker. This loss of muscle, called atrophy, is caused by a lack of use. The same thing happens, in a more subtle way, when children do not get enough physical activity during the school year. Within a few weeks, the inactive child becomes weaker, flabbier, and more likely to put on excess weight. The health gains of summer are lost.
The easiest and best exercise is walking. Instead of riding buses, they should walk to school and back if they live within a mile of school (the new knapsacks on wheels could be used to lighten the book load). Even the little kids could be walked by older kids or walking monitors. They should also walk to friends and shopping. The walk will be refreshing and invigorating, helping the kids to burn off energy in a healthy way.
The parents and the school administrators should consider giving higher priority to providing the students with time and opportunity for active play during the school week. More time could be set aside in the curriculum for organized sport and exercise. In addition to playgrounds and play space in schools, there are some games and activities that can be played in a limited space like a lunchroom, hallway, or even an empty classsroom.
Dancing, foot races, ball games, jumping games like Belts, and jump rope, are all perfect. The boys can play running games like various tag games, snatch the club, and even tumbling. The teachers could help to encourage all of the children to participate in these games. Some could also teach them how to play and make up new games to keep everybody’s interest. After a really active play period, the children will go back to the classsroom energized and much more relaxed and able to focus. Regular vigorous activity will keep the children active and healthy throughout the school year. Another big bonus is that the children will return home at the end of the day, much happier and less likely to act out and fight with each other. They will also sleep better. Weekends are also good times to get the children moving with planned activities that they can look forward to, such as swimming and gym programs.
As our children begin the school year, this would be an excellent time to reassess the daily diets eaten during the school day. Some teachers have taken upon themselves to limit at least some of the snacks to “healthy” meals in the very young students. This is a perfect idea.
It is also essential to make sure that the meals prepared and eaten in school are well balanced. There should be salads, lean meat or chicken, fish, low-fat dairy foods, whole-grain bread, in addition to the standard noodles and potatoes and fish sticks.
Many mothers tell me they must send packaged snacks to school with their kids because all of the children at school bring them every day. They should try to give popcorn and pretzels more often than greasy chips and “super snacks.” It is essential that the number of packaged snacks be limited to one portion for each snack time allowed.
At home, real junk food should be put away for special parties. If they don’t have the snack foods available, the children will be more amenable to eating wholesome foods such as fruits and vegetables, string cheese, chickpeas, grape tomatoes, rice cakes, and whole-grain crackers when they are hungry.
This kind of attention paid to the quality and quantity of the food our families eat will go a long way to fighting obesity. Healthy eating habits learned in childhood will last a lifetime.
As we settle in for the coming school year, we must stop and think now how we are going to keep the physical and emotional gains our children have made. Exercise and proper eating habits must be continued all year. The children’s health and well being are our responsibility. By encouraging them to eat right and activity, we will give them a chance for a healthier future. We adults must also set a good example since children learn by watching their admired adults.
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