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What the Experts Say
Debbie Glasser, Special to The Miami Herald

The other day, my ninth-grade daughter said she was worried about her performance on an upcoming test.

"Is it Algebra 2? Or The Odyssey?'' I asked.

"P.E.,'' she said.

As it turns out, the class that I thought would be Emily's easiest is actually one of her most challenging. She'll be evaluated on her ability to do push-ups, sit-ups, sprints and other physical fitness activities.

And that's a good thing.

According to a report in the October issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, about one-third of boys and girls ages 12 to 19 in the United States do not meet national standards for physical fitness.

Experts agree, fitness is important at every stage, not just during the adult years.

"It promotes flexibility, coordination, cardiac conditioning, and even improves the immune system, as well as mental and emotional health,'' said Dr. Tracie Miller, professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami.

The challenge is finding ways to incorporate it into daily life.

"Busy lifestyles often leave little time for physical activity,'' Miller said. "Many families are simply exhausted at the end of the day.

"Safety is another concern, especially in cities,'' she said. "Playing outside may not be particularly safe, and parents are often much more comfortable with their child at home watching TV or playing on the computer.''

But there are things you can do to promote safe, enjoyable physical activities and support your children's health and well-being. Here are some suggestions:

* Don't wait. The sooner you encourage your kids to enjoy physical play, the better, according to Miller.

"Promoting increased activity in children at an early age can set the stage for positive health habits as they grow,'' she said. Of course, physical activity during the early years should be about fun, not formal exercises. For the preschool set, provide plenty of opportunities to run around, jump, dance, stretch and move.

* Serve those veggies. "It takes time to make healthy, home-cooked meals,'' Miller said, but it's important to avoid the lure of the "quick bite.'' Cook a few meals ahead of time and freeze them. Keep healthy snacks and drinks on hand so your kids will be more likely to choose fruit and vegetables than high-fat chips and sugar-laden sodas.

* Make it a priority. It doesn't take much time to incorporate physical activity into your life, Miller said. She suggests families commit to one to two hours of active and aerobic play each day.

"This may be as simple as getting the kids outside - with supervision,'' she said. "Kids have great imaginations and should be able to stay active, play games and have fun.''

* Curb sedentary activities. "Limit the computer to academic, school-related tasks - and shut off the TV!'' Miller said. "It may be hard for kids at first, but parents will be amazed at how creative and active their children can be, as well as how much their family interactions can increase.''

* Tap into community resources. Enroll school-age children in supervised, after-school activities, Miller said.

"I have personally made observations that kids who come home at 5 p.m. after a day of school and after-school activities are happier, thinner, and even do better academically,'' she said. "Coming home to an empty house or to a baby-sitter with no motivation to get children out and active is a recipe for disaster.

"Every child can participate in some type of after-school sport,'' she said. "Talent should not be a consideration.''

* Be supportive. "Sometimes overweight kids don't want to be active because they're fearful that they'll be made fun of by their peers,'' Miller said. "It's important to provide a supportive environment for all kids to become active.''

She encourages parents to look for activities that are well-suited to their children's age, ability and interests.

* Join 'em. "Children learn by example,'' she said. "They will not want to be physically active if they see their parents watching excessive amounts of television, eating the wrong foods and not engaging in physical activity themselves. The entire family has to be motivated to be more active.''

* Be safe. Before starting any new exercise or physical activity, talk to your healthcare provider to discuss the guidelines that are most appropriate for your family.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsFor
Parents.org, an online newsletter for parents. She can be reached at debbie@NewsForParents.org

Published: November 2, 2006
Copyright (c) 2006 The Miami Herald

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