3 golden rules for raising healthy children

The health of South African children is under threat. Adopt new, healthy habits today and let’s give our children a shot at a healthy future.

11 September 2014
by Karen Nel

Heart disease and diabetes used to be predominantly middle-age problems, but these diseases of lifestyle are now affecting our children at an alarming rate. According to the Healthy Active Kids South Africa (HKSA) Report Card 2014, recently released by Discovery Vitality, the health of South African kids looks bleak.

The overall health rating, which takes nutrition, exercise and sedentary activities into account, slipped from a C- in 2013 to a D in 2014. The Report Card found that South African kids scored particularly poorly in terms of sedentary behaviour (even lower than children in America!), with the average South African child watching almost three hours of television a day.

Bad eating habits add to the problem, as the report found that more than two-thirds of South African teenagers eat fast food at least three times a week.

The good news is that children have time on their side and it’s also easier for them to learn new healthy habits, as they’re generally more flexible to change than adults. But as parents, we have to provide lots of guidance and set the right example. Ready to set your kids up for better health? Let’s go…

1. Limit sedentary behaviour

South African kids scored an F for “sedentary behaviour” on the HKSA Report, placing them lower than children in the USA in the global rankings. While tablets, video games and television can be educational, they’re consuming far too much of the average child’s day.

Also, one of the biggest dangers is to have the television in your home on in the background all day long, as this will distract your child from other activities. Set new rules for the time slots during which the TV will be on and rather have music on in your home while your child plays.

“It’s time for parents to step up,” says Professor Vicki Lambert of the MRC/UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine and co-author of the HKSA Report. “Authoritative parenting, where parents respect their child’s autonomy within firm, but loving boundaries, has been associated with lower levels of television viewing.”

The bottom line: sometimes you have to be a little unpopular to look after your child’s best interests.

2. Up their activity levels

While the recommended daily amount of physical activity for children is 60 minutes a day, the HKSA Report found that most children get less than 20 minutes of exercise a day.

Sixty minutes may sound like a lot, but it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean your child has to run around the block for 60 minutes. Active play is a great way to get exercise. Take your kids to the park and encourage them to climb the jungle gym and push each other on the swings, and play hopscotch or hide-and-seek with them.

When you buy them birthday gifts, buy with their health in mind. Rather opt for a tennis racquet, bicycle or soccer ball than a video game, as these are gifts that will keep on giving.

3. Make good food choices

One of the easiest ways to ensure that your child eats more healthily is to reconsider their lunchbox. It may be easier to give your child money for the school tuck shop, but a child isn’t mature enough to choose foods that are good for them.

Rather pack a lunchbox containing wholewheat sandwiches, fruit and nuts. Then put the tuck shop money in a piggy bank and let them save up for something that they really want.

Make sure there are healthy food options at home too – place a fruit bowl in an easily accessible position and stock up on low-fat yoghurt, wholewheat bread, nuts and dried fruit. Also remember that you set the example and are largely responsible for your child’s nutrition. The HKSA Report found that 84 percent of overweight children had an overweight mother.

Alarmingly, one of the biggest culprits in childhood obesity is fizzy cooldrinks. Consider that the recommended daily maximum amount of sugar for a child is 15g, yet a single can of fizzy cooldrink contains 37g of sugar. Excess sugar intake puts children at risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2-diabetes and inflammation.