Is your under five fit?

by Dr David Pincus

Getting healthy eating and active play right from the start is a lifelong gift parents can give children. So what can parents do to ensure their children start school as fit and healthy as possible?

Dr David Pincus

Dr David Pincus

It's a depressing and familiar statistic - over a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese. But it gets worse. A study published recently shows this baby fat often doesn’t go away. 

The study published in the journal Pediatrics looked at 4000 school students in the US. They found nearly all the kids who were overweight or obese in grade five remained that way in year 10.

It turns out that hoping kids slim down as they grow doesn’t work out that well.

Probably not coincidentally, at the same time a study from the University College of London uncovered data that showed at the beginning of last century children were 50% more active than today.

Researchers refer to this as the “global collapse of physical activity”. It affects adults too, but it is children who will bear the consequences into the future.

In Australia by the time children enter prep 20 per cent are already overweight or obese, and those children are four times more likely than normal weight children to be obese by grade eight. Just like in adults, once fat is established losing it becomes a difficult, life long battle.

So it makes sense that more focus is now being placed on the very early years, before the age of five.  The aim is to prevent baby fat from even starting, so kids begin school fit and healthy, with their potential undimmed by the threat of obesity.

So what can parents do to keep baby fat at bay? Parents and carers need to get healthy eating and active play right from birth.

Start early

From the beginning mothers should breastfeed if possible and never start juice or soft drinks.

Early weaning foods should be consistently healthy. Kids may like the salt and fat in chips but they will grow to love a healthy diet if that is all they know.

And it’s not just diet.

A study from Deakin University found that half of 19 month olds do not meet the daily physical guidelines for their age group. Babies and young children need plenty of time for active play. That means floor time and gentle movement games from infancy. Sitting in strollers, highchairs and car seats for long periods isn’t good for children’s health and development and goes against their natural tendency to be active and play.

Off and running

Ensuring a child is fit and active from the start builds the habits and capacity for a lifetime of good health.  When screens are off children have more time for the active play they need. That can include floor time for infants, crawling games for older babies, walking and dancing play for toddlers and more structured active play for older kids.

Choose toys that encourage reaching, stretching, crawling and moving activities for infants such as balls, pots, streamers and hoops. For toddlers and pre-schoolers, choose toys that encourage movement and develop skills like running, kicking, throwing and catching, such as balls, bats, tricycles and kites.

Parents provide, kids decide

Parents provide children with a healthy selection of foods and let them decide how much to eat. As a rule of thumb half of every plate should be vegetables. In the same way parents should provide a range of active play opportunities and kids decide which activities to engage in.

Set the example

Children learn most from how their parents care for themselves. Parents can set the example by incorporating healthy eating and active play as a regular part their own lives, so everyone benefits.

Encourage positive body image
The researchers in the Pediatrics study also looked at the effect of body image on obesity. It turns out the overweight children who were ashamed of their weight were more likely to be obese in year 10 than the overweight children who felt better about their body image. That means parents should talk about healthy habits rather than losing weight and make sure the children know they are loved and special for who they are, regardless of their weight.