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child in a digital age

10 Ways to Help Foster Healthy Physical Habits in a Digital World

We all know that exercise is essential to our health and wellbeing; however, in a time when so much of our daily lives revolve around screens, how can parents ensure that their kids engage in regular and productive physical activity? To find out, we asked a distinguished panel of researchers, clinicians, educators, and parenting experts to share their tips for developing healthy physical habits in an increasingly digital world. Check out their top ten tips below, and tune in live next week when several will participate in an interdisciplinary conversation and Q&A hosted by Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development on Wednesday, September 22nd, at 12pm ET via Zoom.

Drawing on a wide variety of research, the panelists will discuss how families can combat obesity, encourage an active lifestyle both on- and off-screen, minimize the impacts of commercials, and make informed nutritional choices. In addition, the panel will explore how screens and digital media can be used to make exercise fun for children and adults of all ages. RSVP here.


There’s a big difference between physically active screen time and sedentary screen time, and it’s important for parents to keep this distinction in mind when regulating their children’s video game play. “Active video games, or exergames, offer innovative, engaging, and accessible exercising alternatives to children with comparable beneficial effects, especially during the pandemic when access to outdoor and indoor facilities can be restricted,” says Amy S. Lu, PhD, Associate Professor and Director of the Health Technology Lab at Northeastern University in Boston. Lu suggests that parents participate in these kinds of games with their children when possible, both in order to reinforce the value of exercise and to help ensure that their kids get the most out of the activity. In addition, parents can take advantage of this gaming opportunity as gateways to introduce children to actual sports. They can start by explaining the rules and plan with their children about potential future participation in these sports.


It’s important for families to have open discussions about healthy boundaries when it comes to digital devices. “Parents should regularly talk to their children about screen usage and develop a family media use plan,” says Jason Nagata, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “This could include setting limits and encouraging screen-free time. “These limitations should be based on the child’s age and development,” adds Kyle T. Ganson, MSW, Assistant Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, “and can be jointly created with the child, and as a family, to ensure buy in.” Both Nagata and Ganson agree that once these rules are set, it’s essential for parents to follow them, as well, in order to model healthy, appropriate behavior for their children.


When it comes to encouraging healthy habits, routines can be a parent’s best friend. “Kids need routines that encourage physical activity and limit the behaviors that disconnect them from it,” says Jill Castle, MS, RDN, author of The Smart Mom’s Guide to Healthy Snacking and founder of The Nourished Child®. “Mealtimes and regular snacking intervals are powerful allies for parents who want to raise physically active, well-nourished kids. Not only do they sustain a child’s energy for play or activity, they can also cover appetite cues and nutrient needs, curtailing excessive or mindless eating.”


While more than 20% of children and adolescents in the US are currently dealing with obesity, the condition remains greatly misunderstood by many families. “Obesity is a multifactorial disease in how the brain regulates weight,” explains Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D, an internationally renowned obesity medicine physician and scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “It’s highly heritable, with a 50-80% likelihood, which means that if parents have obesity, children will often also have it, even with an optimal lifestyle.” That said, Dr. Stanford recommends that all parents ensure their kids engage in plenty of physical activity, receive adequate sleep, and focus on a quality diet of lean protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. “If lifestyle measures are inadequate,” she counsels, “consider care with a multidisciplinary comprehensive team in which medications or surgery might be considered.”


By now, we all know that plenty of habitual physical activity, limiting extended sitting and screen time, and preserving adequate sleep, promotes health and prevents disease. “While these ‘movement behaviors’ are typically considered separately, a growing body of evidence suggests that the composition of these behaviors is most powerfully related to health,” says Mark Tremblay, PhD, FCSEP, FACSM, FCAHS, Senior Scientist, Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group and President of the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance. “In other words, healthy movement behavior trade-offs throughout the 24-hour day that result in children moving more, sitting less, and sleeping well promotes optimal health in a fashion that can be individualized for every child.”


Though the lack of physical activity may be the most obvious concern, too much screen time can also lead kids to engage in mindless snacking and make poor food choices, which is among the many reasons that the AAP recommends fewer than two hours of non-school screen time for children each day. “If you struggle to reduce screen time, try to incorporate physical activity into that time,” says Rachana Shah, MD, Medical Director of the Healthy Weight Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Follow along with dance or exercise videos, play interactive video games, or watch while exercising (for older children and teens).” Shah also recommends avoiding eating in front of screens (“If you want a snack, turn off the show and come to the kitchen”) and suggests providing appealing alternatives to screens like books, toys, and art supplies so that devices aren’t the default.


One way to help kids to engage in more physical activity is to encourage them to transition their digital stories into real world experiences. “As parents, we can build on the stories children engage with onscreen by having them physically act the events out in real life,” says Laura Bellows, PhD, Associate Professor, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University. “For young children, hopping over an obstacle, balancing on one foot, or crawling under something helps develop gross motor skills and encourages kids to use their imaginations. Adding descriptions to their movements like high/low or heavy/light can build vocabulary as well as assist kids in learning the different ways their body moves.” Bellows recommends using these movements when you’re on a walk in the neighborhood or when you need to redirect their focus (such as away from the candy during checkout at the grocery store!).


Beyond the sedentary lifestyle and mindless snacking it encourages, screen time also exposes kids to advertisements for unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. Erica Kenney, ScD, MPH, Assistant Professor at the Harvard Chan School in its Department of Nutrition, recommends parents both limit their children’s exposure to these commercials and help them learn to be more savvy about the ads they do encounter. “First, use subscription streaming services for your children’s screen time instead of traditional TV or streaming with the cheapest subscription level, as most services offer a subscription level that will help you avoid ads altogether,” she suggests. “Second, when your children do see ads or product placements in a show, don’t be afraid to engage with them and encourage them to think about how that ad is trying to get them to buy something. Lastly, if your child is old enough to be on social media, check with them about whether they are ‘liking’ or otherwise engaging with food and beverage brands on social media and encourage them to disengage.”


Getting your kids involved in making good food choices and preparing their own meals early on will help them learn what goes into a healthy diet (proteins, fruits, and vegetables) and contribute to the development of positive habits they can carry for the rest of their lives. “If you can only make one change, eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sports drinks, juice, boba, and fancy coffee shop drinks,” says Cori Cross, MD FAAP, Pediatrician, AAP Spokesperson, American Academy of Pediatric Council on Communications and Media and Co-Founder of Fit to Play and Learn Obesity Prevention Curriculum. “Although these beverages are okay occasionally or on special occasions, when consumed on a regular basis they are highly correlated with obesity.”


One of the biggest challenges for parents is finding ways to make exercise as fun and appealing to kids as television and video games. “The first step is getting them involved in the activity selection process,” says Melissa Halas, MA RDN CDE, Dietitian and CEO of SuperKidsNutrition.com. “After all, not every child wants to play community soccer. But it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy swimming, biking, hiking, tennis, or dance. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask!” Once your child has shared their passions with you, parents can use those activities to reinforce positive food habits. “Frame nutritious options as power fuel to become stronger, faster, and more agile athletes or performers,” says Halas. “Ideally, half of their plates should be fruits or vegetables, whereas the remaining may combine whole grains and lean proteins.” However, she warns, it’s important to avoid associating food as a reward for physical activity, as that implies that exercise is a consequence of food indulgence rather than a hobby to enjoy, and the goal is to keep physical activity fun and exciting for kids.

Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, informing and educating the public, advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness, and enhancing human capital in the field. For more information, see www.childrenandscreens.com or write to info@childrenandscreens.com.

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