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Kids’ health habits, Cooper says, linked to their parents’ lifestyle

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The news is serious. Children are fatter and less physically fit than they were 15 years ago.

They spend hours in front of the TV. They are no longer required to take physical education in all 12 years of their schooling. They eat food high in fat and cholesterol. And they rely on the car for transportation.

Sedentary living and poor nutrition can have sobering consequences for a child’s future, said world-renowned author, physician, fitness expert and clinic president Kenneth H. Cooper. He notes that childhood obesity is frequently a predictor of adult obesity, which is associated with medical problems such as diabetes, hypertension, gallbladder disease, heart attacks and cancer.

Heart disease “takes more than 20 years to develop,” Cooper writes in his new Broadman & Holman book, “Fit Kids! The Complete Shape-Up Program from Birth through High School.”

Cooper urges adults to take children off the fast track to serious diseases and shortened life spans by adopting a game plan for a child’s particular chronological and developmental level. His resource includes methods to assess fitness levels, illustrated exercises, smart-eating programs, recipes for the “Fast-Food Generation” and strategies for total family involvement.

Cooper, founder and president of the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, has some important — and even surprising — lessons for today’s parents. It might shock some readers that children by nature gravitate toward healthy activities and habits.

Given children’s natural inclinations, Cooper said, “The best way for parents to steer their children back to those inclinations is to set an example for them.”

“Also,” he advised, “encourage them to participate in activities that are in a healthy environment and with peers who are setting the example that you want your children to follow. But the best predictor of healthy activities and eating habits in a child are the eating and activity habits of their parents.”

Parental involvement, accountability and commitment are needed for a successful child fitness program, Cooper writes. He emphasizes the importance of parent/child teamwork throughout his book. “Both the parent and the child must somehow get involved if the kid fitness program is to succeed,” he writes.

“Young children are unlikely to embark on a long-term, comprehensive conditioning program without the backing and guidance of a supportive mother or father,” he notes.

Another basic lesson Cooper teaches is the difference between health and fitness. “In the past, physical fitness meant the absence of disease. To me, physical fitness is having a quality of life that enables a person to perform at the highest level,” he said.

“There are an estimated 48 million sedentary adults who are ‘healthy’ but not ‘fit.’ Our studies clearly show that in that state, they are not only increasing the risk of dying from all causes, they are shortening their lives.”

Cooper also wants parents to be aware of the distinction between a child’s chronological age and his or her physical and emotional development. Fit Kids! contains outlines of the major phases of a child’s development — from birth to age 17 – but stresses that a child is an individual, not a type.

“Due to the rule of rhythm, children develop physiologically at different rates,” he said.

For example, two children 10 years of age chronologically may be up to four years apart in their physiological development. Because of growth spurts, the physiologically less mature child may not stay that way, he said. But, still, it is important to match children physiologically, not just chronologically, when they participate in team sports, he said.

Likewise, emotional development can vary, and parents should be aware of the possibility that puberty does not always come at a certain age, he added.

Physical activities appropriate for children can include team sports or individualized programs such as walking, swimming, running and cycling.

Cooper warned parents not to place their child in an activity in which he or she has no interest, nor one in which “the parent sees the possibility of participating vicariously through the child. That will place such pressure on a child that very likely he or she will become an adolescent fitness dropout.”

Setting up a child for success, not failure, is Cooper’s goal. He said he hopes people who read his book will consider it the Dr. Spock for fitness and nutrition for children. He reminded readers that in order to change people’s lifestyle for the better, a fourfold approach is recommended:

1) Evaluate, 2) Educate and motivate, 3) Implement programs that are safe, effective and realistic (in that order) and 4) Re-evaluate.

Cooper provides details to demonstrate use of the four-step approach in getting children involved in fitness and sports activities and keeping them involved.

    About the Author

  • Kristin Searfoss