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After months of living amidst a pandemic, it’s no surprise to doctors and parents alike that many children are more sedentary than usual and have gained a few extra pounds. With a significant number of fall extracurriculars canceled and hours of Zoom learning ahead of us, the problem isn’t likely to go away on its own.

The challenge, though, isn’t just that kids are moving less. Many kids who are normally in school all day are now grazing in the kitchen throughout the unstructured days of quarantine. Kids are eating more because they’re bored. And they’re eating more because they’re anxious.

If you find yourself wondering why your kids are at the fridge again, and you’re constantly nagging them to get outside, you’re in good company.

Benefits of exercise for kids

Staying active doesn’t just help children maintain a healthy weight. It also helps with mood and anxiety.  

How much exercise do kids need?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following: 

  • Kids aged 3-5 need at least 3 hours of physical activity per day, or about 15 minutes every hour they are awake.
  • Kids 6 years and older need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on most days of the week.

Dr. Kathy Shepherd recommends kids get moving even more than that. “It’s important to be active at least one hour a day. For some kids that’s no problem, but some are having a harder time now.” 

Getting active doesn’t mean your kids have to be athletic. Going for a walk, riding a scooter, biking or playing on a swing set or at a park are all great ways to get kids moving.

For some kids, two hours can seem like a long time all at once, but if you break that into chunks of 15 minutes here and a half-hour there, it is more manageable. 

How to teach kids to eat healthy food

Dr. Shepherd recommends several tips for setting kids up for a lifetime of healthy eating. This is even more important when so many of our best intentions as parents have gone out the window in this pandemic.

Kids in school normally eat up to two meals there with one or two scheduled snacks. They are limited to whatever they or their parents packed that day. Now, with so many kids home this summer and headed back to school for remote learning, snacking throughout the day is a new challenge.

It might be time to make a plan with your kids. 

healthy food for kids

Kids of all ages need a schedule

Kids First’s Nurse Practitioner Amanda Enno, FNP-C, meets with patients for nutrition visits and says she always focuses on a healthy lifestyle. “A huge barrier for kids I’m seeing has been the lack of routine. Kids are staying up too late, sleeping in and skipping breakfast.”

During telehealth visits and in the office, Amanda talks to families about setting up a routine and having a designated place for eating. This is especially important for kids who are e-learning this fall. Back in the beginning of the pandemic, Amanda would meet kids who were living in their bedrooms, studying, chatting with friends and eating there. This sedentary lifestyle isn’t good for physical or mental health.

Try designating a learning space somewhere in the house, outside of your child’s bedroom for learning. If that’s not possible, set up a table or desk in your child’s bedroom and make sure your child emerges for meals and snacks.

Meal prep for healthy snacks

Amanda advises limiting empty calories by spending some time meal prepping fruits and vegetables. You or your kids can chop these and have it ready in the fridge so that your family can opt for a healthy alternative to what’s in the snack cupboard.

This is a great way to get kids involved in cooking as well. Older kids can cook meals they like after getting some training from mom or dad. And younger kids typically love helping in the kitchen. Getting kids involved in the kitchen teaches them to have autonomy over their own health.

Choose healthy for second helpings 

It’s hard to teach portion control to kids, who may not have a great understanding of measurements. And you certainly don’t want them to feel embarrassed at the table if they tend to eat more than you’d prefer. Amanda offers great advice to teach kids that second helpings should be healthy. Instead of choosing a second serving of pasta or pizza, kids should go for a second helping of a veggie dish.

Drink more water 

If your kids are snacking a lot, it can be because they are just bored. Try getting kids to drink more water to help ease those cravings. Amanda is even seeing teenage boys who are constipated because they’re not drinking enough water in school and in sports. 

Kids should try to drink half their body weight in ounces of water. So if your child is 100 pounds, he should drink 50 ounces of water a day.

Use commonsense with screen time 

Managing screen time use is hard when kids are using screens for e-learning and connecting with friends. Amanda recommends still setting up restrictions when you can. She tells kids to stay off the screen for at least one hour before bed. She also recommends breaking up hours of screen time, so that kids intentionally get up for water, do a quick exercise, write in a journal or read a book off the screen.

Ideally, you should set up some boundaries together with your kids so that they avoid mindless scrolling and too much Netflix. 

The AAP has a Family Media Plan you can create together.

Is it safe to go to a park during COVID-19?

Every family has its own risk tolerance level during the pandemic, based on preference and loved ones who are high risk. Deciding if you are comfortable taking your kids to the park is no different. For most families, though, the park is a pretty safe space.

Dr. Shepherd tells parents that outside and even going to a park are pretty safe. “It’s extremely unlikely that kids will get COVID from the park and playing outside.”

After playing outside, kids should wash their hands, obviously. And if you’re nervous about the park, then go somewhere wide open, like the forest preserve. 

Are playdates safe during the pandemic?

Like going to the park, while our area is in phase 4 playdates will depend on each family’s risk tolerance and preferences. Some kids are natural introverts and are perfectly happy spending time at home. But those kids who are more social are really struggling.

Although the AAP still does not recommend playdates Dr. Shepherd says, “Having one-on-one playdates outdoors is probably fine and pretty safe. Obviously, if someone has a person in a high-risk category at home that’s a different level of risk.”  Some families have made arrangements to allow their children to only play within their two families, “quarenteaming”. Consider letting older children bike outside together.

For those families who want to get their children together, we recommend you first discuss what your risk tolerance is and what any vulnerabilities are. Make sure you both feel comfortable. 

Ways to keep kids active

In March, you may have started out with creativity and energy to help your kids stay busy and keep them from feeling anxious. But as months have passed, it’s no surprise if you’re feeling tired of trying. But staying active can be the antidote to apathy.

If your kids have been less active, it’s time to make a plan. 

Here are some ideas of ways to get kids more active

Try badminton: The set is pretty inexpensive, and you can put it up in a small space. 

Portable ping pong: You don’t need an expensive ping pong table in your basement to get kids playing. A portable set is very reasonable, and you can even set it up outside if you have a foldable table.

Schedule a daily family walk: If everyone goes, and you stick to a schedule, this will become a habit with so many benefits for everyone involved.

Try a new online workout class: There were great workout classes before the pandemic, and now that so many gyms are closed, the options are endless. Here are just a few:

Be creative and experiment and do what works for your child.

Of course, winter will take a lot more creativity, but let’s take this quarantine one day at a time.

For questions, or to schedule a telehealth visit with Amanda or any of our providers, email info@kidsfirstpediatricpartners.com

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