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Promote children's health during holidays

By Linda Breazeale

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The winter holidays may tempt families to eat large meals and then cuddle up inside, but for the children's sake, parents need to promote physical activities and fewer calories.

While the holidays are often a time when pounds are added, planning extra activities and the right gifts can help reverse Mississippi's trend as a national leader in overweight issues.

Jane Clary, health specialist and associate professor with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said Mississippians report one of the highest rates of lack of regular exercise among adults: 81 percent are not physically active on a regular basis. Mississippi leads the nation in adult obesity, heart disease death rate, age-adjusted death rates and prevalence for diabetes.

"Weight issues are also concerns for our children. Being overweight has a direct impact on health, including asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, joint problems and sleep disorders," Clary said. "Type 2 diabetes accounts for almost 50 percent of the new cases of diabetes among youth in some communities."

Healthy diets can help prevent the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Eating right can improve energy levels and has been linked to higher grades in school.

Clary said in addition to improving eating habits, exercise is essential to maintaining a healthy weight and condition. Physical activities can be fun as well as beneficial.

"As parents shop for holiday presents for their children, they should consider alternatives to video games and sedentary gifts," Clary said. "Brand-new bicycles, skates, jump ropes and athletic balls can make a child's eyes light up. Purchasing those items with plans to join them in the activity is even better."

Clary said parents should lead by example in how much they eat and how much they exercise.

"The key to healthy eating is moderation. Most of the time, families can enjoy holiday foods and desserts without overeating," Clary said. "In the same way, families can enjoy exercise without overdoing it and getting sore or hurt."

Louise Davis, child and family development specialist and professor for MSU's Extension Service, said getting children active and participating in new activities helps them build self esteem, gain confidence and feel better.

"Parents may have to be innovative or put out a lot of effort to find an activity that appeals to their children," Davis said. "Children need positive reinforcement to continue activities that may be more difficult. Compliment and praise children's efforts to encourage them to continue in healthy activities. With the right inspiration, parents can see a huge improvement in their children's attitude and their physical condition."

Davis said parents can make exercise easier by joining their children. Throwing balls with the children or family trips to a skating rink also may motivate children to be more active when parents are not around. Activities that involve the entire family serve many purposes: they promote better health, they generate memories to cherish, and they may establish traditions for years to come.

"If the weather allows, a visit at a local park will provide opportunities for good conversations as well as physical activities in play areas. Even in cold weather, a brisk walk to see friends or around the neighborhood can be fun," Davis said. "Consider inviting other families or friends who may not have families nearby to join your activities."

Davis said parents who set positive examples are life's best teachers.

"Whether you are eating right, reading a book or exercising, your children are more likely to follow your example," Davis said. "Be sure to set a good one."

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Released: Nov. 4, 2004
Contact: Dr. Jane Clary, (662) 325-5014 or Dr. Louise Davis, (662) 325-3083

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