Heredity doesn’t have to be destiny. You just have to take steps, quite literally, to change it. In a study presented at this week’s American Heart Association’s Conference on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism in Palm Harbor, Florida, urban kids at risk for future obesity (because at least one of their parents is obese) who lived near neighborhood parks, playgrounds, and sports fields walked more on a weekly basis than children who didn’t. And the walkers may be less likely to become obese as a result.
THE DETAILS: Scientists from Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Center in Montreal interviewed 300 8- to 10-year-old boys and girls and their parents about their proximity to public parks and the amount of walking the children did on a weekly basis. All the kids in the study were considered at high risk for future obesity because at least one of their parents is obese. The researchers found that the presence of parks nearby was very strongly associated both with girls walking to school and with boys walking for leisure. In fact, for every additional park located within a half-mile of the family’s home, the likelihood of walking to school more than doubled among girls and leisure-time walking rose by 60 percent among boys.
WHAT IT MEANS: Walking frequency matters—for personal as well as environmental health. As rates of obesity among children rise, researchers are looking at ways to ramp up kids’ activity levels as seamlessly and effortlessly as possible. Walking fits the bill, and it means fewer greenhouse gasses and pollutants are released into the atmosphere. The good news, as this study suggests, is that it seems kids will be more active if given the time and place to do so. If you don’t happen to live near a park, your kids are missing an advantage that could protect their health. That means you’ll need to put extra effort into encouraging them to get moving. It’s worth it, though. They get some exercise, boost their health, and build a habit of getting around without relying on fossil-fuel burning conveyances. And when you join them, so do you.
Here’s what you can do to nudge your child’s activity level a bit higher:
• Do a walkability check. See the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s walkability checklist to find out if your community is suitably walkable, and to get tips on how to make it more so. The next time your family relocates, factor the walkability of your new locale into your decision.
• Hoof it. If it’s safe to walk or bike rather than drive, do so. Use stairs instead of elevators and escalators. Gradually increase the distances you and your children walk.
• Limit screen time. Limit TV, movies, videos, and computer games to less than 2 hours a day. Fill the rest of your leisure time with physical activity.
• Choose fitness-oriented gifts. Select a gift with your child's skills and interests in mind: A jump rope, mini-trampoline, tennis racket, baseball bat, a youth membership at the local YMCA or YWCA…
• Free that baby. Strollers and playpens are high on convenience but low on activity potential. Try to unleash your diapered dynamo whenever and wherever he or she can safely move around.
• Set a good example. Minimize your carbon footprint as well as the number on the scale by walking whenever you can, modeling its importance to your kids.