Home is the childhood obesity battleground


IN THE FAMILY By setting healthy food and exercise examples, parents become positive role models for their children.


Paul O'Brien

In my ten years as a fitness trainer and health coach, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many schools around Mayo. Usually, I am called in to speak to children on the importance of exercise and healthy eating.
It’s great to see so many schools, despite budgetary constraints, taking the extra step to provide this service for their students. I feel that if even one student takes the message to heart, then my time there has been of benefit. However, talking to children at their schools is only part of the solution. In combating the modern health crises afflicting more of our children annually, such as type-2 diabetes and obesity, there is a far more vital battle-ground – the home.

The parent mentor
Family provides a powerful force in supporting – or thwarting – better health behaviours. Establishing parents as the agents of change, empowering them – rather than the children – with techniques to drive behaviour change, can make a big difference in the health of both parents and children.
Ideally, what is required is a centralised programme focused on family health. This could include a parent/teacher aspect in the schools. As the home and school are the two places where children spend a majority of their time, this would lead to a transformed environment for children, where they are encouraged to make healthful choices that will positively impact their lives.

The healthy home
This, for now, is wishful thinking. The health of our children is a vital task that requires action now. Failure to act will burden them with ever greater health problems and sound the death knoll for an already over-burdened health system. So, what can parents do to promote health within the home?
It’s useful to recall here that one of the best predictors of positive lifestyle change is social support. As support systems go, the family is king. Here are some strategies that you can introduce to change the conversation around health in your family.

  • Start talking. Changing the conversation starts with a conversation. Research clearly shows that families who talk about health and fitness have stronger adherence to exercise and a healthier diet. Why not have a monthly family meeting to discuss lifestyle, health and exercise?
  • Be the boss. Parents should set the dietary ground rules for the home. They decide what foods are brought into the house, when and where meals are eaten. Children can be offered a choice to foods to eat, which empowers them to make healthful decisions and avoids the problems associated with a more authoritarian approach (‘Eat your carrots or you won’t get any dessert!’).
  • Family meals. The family that eats together, grows together. I don’t know where I heard that, perhaps it’s even mine. Enjoying regular family meals encourages food enjoyment and builds a positive experience around food for children.
  • Health games. I have used ‘food and mood’ charts with families to great effect. This encourages children to recognise the association between what they eat and how they feel. You can make it a family game by designing your own charts and rules and discuss your progress at your monthly family meeting.
  • Create a healthy environment. This is a micro version of the centralised programme I wrote about earlier. Engaging children with food shopping, stocking the kitchen cupboard and eating family meals at the kitchen table are all strategies to create a healthy home environment. Setting aside time for regular family activities, being parental role models for exercise and encouraging less use of motorised transportation will all boost physical activity and enjoyment.

A new, healthy future for our children is in our hands. If you are looking for a legacy to leave yours, there is none more urgent and rewarding.

Paul O’Brien is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise since 2007 and a qualified Life, Health & Nutrition Coach. He is co-owner of Republic of Fitness in Westport. He can be contacted on 086 1674515 or rofstudio@gmail.com.