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To help kids be healthy, adults need to create new environments

If their environment saying to our kids, “Pizza, nachos, soda, candy,” then that is exactly what they will eat.

For a moment, think of the environment we have created for our children.

On a recent hot summer day I stood with our two young daughters at the Highland Pool. A wonderful spot to be, chest deep in the cool water holding a 3-year-old as she figures out the liquid surrounding her and watching a 7-year-old explore deeper territory. Glancing over to the pool deck I noticed several young kids snacking. Mini-doughnuts, pizza, soda. Lots of soda. Nachos. What struck me in this moment were the mixed messages we send our kids. “Be active. Swim. Eat lots of junk food.”

Mark Blegen

The environment that surrounds us can be so dynamic and encouraging while also being so overwhelmingly wrong. How can we encourage our kids to be active and healthy when we as adults send these messages?

Most of us know the statistics. Seventeen percent of all children under the age of 18 are obese, while over a third are overweight. Being overweight or obese as a child dramatically raises the odds of being an overweight or obese adult. Overweight and obesity are associated with myriad chronic health conditions, academic and social struggles, and mental health challenges. We aren’t doing our children any favors when we place them in an environment of mixed messages or as Dr. Kelly Brownell of Duke University once said, “an obesogenic environment.” An environment that wants our children to sit more and move less.

Environment says ‘Eat, eat, sit, sit’

For a moment, think of the environment we have created for our children. Screens aplenty, fading physical-education classes in the elementary schools, pizza at the pool, sugary cereal staring at them in the grocery aisles. Literally staring. A recent study demonstrated that the eyes of cartoon characters on cereal boxes are angled down to draw the attention of the younger set. Our children are inundated with these messages of eat, eat, sit, sit. The average individual in the United States makes more than 250 decisions about food each day, some conscious, most unconscious.

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In the absence of conscious thought, we outsource our decision-making authority to our environment. If that environment in turn is saying to our kids “Pizza, nachos, soda, candy,” then that is exactly what they will eat. We need to create environments for our kids where the default is a healthy — or at least, a healthier — choice.

Trust me, I am not sitting in the ivory tower and saying, “Change is easy. Put down the nachos and walk away. Don’t eat the doughnuts.” I struggle just as much as the next person, both as a parent and as an individual, in making wise food choices. Think of your own willpower struggles and then imagine being 7. However, a change does need to be made so that our kids learn from a young age that there are good food choices out there and that being active is a great thing.

Start good habits early

Once established, habits are ridiculously hard to change. Let’s create good habits early on by creating environments that make it easy for kids to do so. Take away the pizza and nachos at the pool, encourage your elementary school to add more physical education, and move with your kids. Swim with them, play with them, run with them. Their health will thank you for it. Their grades will thank you for it. Their bodies will thank you for it.

Change isn’t easy, but it can be so worth it.

Mark Blegen, Ph.D., is an associate dean in the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

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