Once the school year ends and the weather turns warm, Mark Winters and his family refuse to let the days pass by in a blur of television shows and computer games.
Instead, Reid, 11, Peyton, 10, and Parker, 8, fill their summer with activities they love. Whether it’s football practice, a softball game or a family bike ride in DuPage County’s forest preserve, the Winters, of Downers Grove, are almost always on the go.
But a recent Ohio State and Indiana University study shows that isn’t always the case. During summer vacation, body mass indexes in the children studied rose three times as fast in the summer of their kindergarten year and more than twice as fast in their first-grade summer than at any point during the school year. The study, which appears in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health, focused on 5,380 kindergartners and first-graders from across the country.
It’s unclear if these findings are true for children in other age groups, but no matter the age, local experts agree that lack of structure during the summer can lead to extra pounds.
"Although we think of summer as a time when children get a lot of exercise, it’s also a time of a lot of unstructured time and unstructured eating," says Harold Pollack, an associate professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. "If they’re getting up at 9:30 a.m., watching TV, having a couple snacks and playing board games with their friends, they’re taking in more calories than they’re expending."
Many children spend their down time playing video games, watching TV and simply lounging around the house even when the weather’s nice, Pollack says, which means they’re not riding their bikes or playing kickball with their friends. Adding structure to their day helps, and that can include encouraging them to join a baseball team or signing them up for a local day camp.
As a busy working mother, Maureen Garcia of Downers Grove opts to take her daughter to the local YMCA summer day camp. Torry, 8, spends her days swimming, playing sports, taking yoga classes and learning how to eat healthy. Her 5-year-old brother, Mateo, will participate in his first YMCA summer camp this year.
Garcia says it’s important to keep her kids fit during the summer. "I see a lot of kids with the computer games and I just don’t want to go down that path."
Garcia also says they try to take advantage of sunny days with a family bike ride, a game of catch or a trip to the park.
Whatever you plan, make the idea of exercise fun for your child and help them develop a positive attitude toward physical activity, says Barbara Taylor, vice president for programs and membership at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. Encouraging children to go outside and play tag with their friends or to organize a game of hopscotch is a better way to get them moving than just telling them they need to exercise. Make sure they’re having fun while they’re playing—whether they’re with you or their friends—and they’ll be more likely to choose taking in some fresh air on their bikes over staying inside to catch the afternoon cartoons.
Show them how it’s done
If parents expect their children to stay active, it’s important that they’re active as well, Pollack says. If your children see you spending your down time watching soap operas or surfing the Internet, chances are they won’t understand why they can’t do the same.
That’s one of the reasons Mark Winters has coached his son’s football team for the last three years. He loves spending extra time with his children, he says, but he also knows he’s teaching them—and other children their ages—how to play a sport while at the same time ensuring that they get the exercise their young bodies need.
"They learn a lot about their lifestyle at a young age," Winters says. "If you tend to hang out in front of the TV or computer or lounge around the house at a young age, you learn that as what your lifestyle is going to be. We want them to learn different activities."
Some kids just aren’t that active, but parents still need to find ways to get them moving. For sedentary kids, it’s best to keep it simple, says Rebecca Unger, an attending pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Encourage them to play at least one hour every day. Teach them how to jump rope or play a game of croquet. Try setting up an obstacle course in the backyard and have them time themselves. Maybe take a walk or a jog around the block—anything to get them away from their favorite video game and outside burning some calories.
Winters even follows this advice and says a friendly game of bocce ball in the backyard is better than nothing.
"It doesn’t have to be an organized event," Winters says. "Just turning off the TV and playing in the yard is fun, too."
If your child must play video games, limit the time they spend with that controller and encourage them to try out some of the interactive options, Taylor says. There are games available that involve dancing and movement, and adding those types of games to your child’s collection is a great way to ease him or her into a more active lifestyle.
Summer weight gain isn’t just about less activity—it’s also about eating more junk food. During the school day, children eat at certain times, Unger says, but when they’re home, they’re free to graze whenever they like. If chips and cookies are accessible, then that’s likely what they’re going to munch on while they watch TV.
Keeping healthy snacks around the house is the best way to make sure children are eating what they should, Taylor says. The summer months are a great time for fresh fruits and veggies, so make them easy to grab. Cut up watermelon wedges or put out a bowl of strawberries that are ready to eat.
Taylor also recommends ditching potato chips for pretzels, but says to keep snacks between 100 and 150 calories per serving. Make sure that you have plenty of low-fat dairy products like string cheese in the refrigerator and keep boxes of raisins in the cupboards. Limit the amount of soda that’s available and offer water instead. If your child doesn’t care for water, then try adding lemon or orange slices to give it flavor.
Even the sports drinks that children crave when they’re playing hard should be limited to about four ounces a day, says Unger, who also sees patients at The Northwestern Children’s Practice in Chicago. Aim to give them at least four glasses of water a day along with low-fat milk.
Beyond providing fruits and other low-fat snacking options, Unger also recommends sticking to a routine meal schedule during the summer months.
"It gets back to what healthy patterns are," Unger says. "Kids should have three meals a day and a couple healthy snacks. Snacking is OK, but it should be healthy and without grazing in between."
And like exercise, parents have to be role models when it comes to eating healthy, Pollack says. If your mid-day snack is a bowl of chocolate ice cream, you can’t expect your child to be satisfied with a few grapes.
"It’s important to communicate to children a sense of ownership and responsibility of what they put into their bodies," Pollack says. "It’s a combination of having the right things and eating the right quantities. A small dish of ice cream is a nice thing in the summer, but a big dish of ice cream and having it a lot is not a nice thing."
Finding your way
Whether it’s greatly reducing the amount of junk food in your home, signing your children up for a summer camp or simply scheduling more time for family walks, when it comes to keeping your children fit, you need to determine what works best for your family.
No matter how you plan to guide your children to a healthier lifestyle, let them know that you care about what they’re doing. Check in at the end of the day and ask how they spent their time. If the run down doesn’t include enough active playing, then do something about it that evening and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Childhood obesity—no matter what time of year it is—is a nationwide problem, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before it can be solved.
"We have to mobilize as a community and as parents," Pollack says. "It’s not just a parent issue. It’s not just a child issue. It’s an everybody issue."
Renee Knight is a former newspaper reporter.