It’s an all too familiar sight: your teenagers huddled over their tablets or phones, barely moving for hours, snacking on the wrong stuff or not eating at all.
The Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card 2016, a study co-ordinated by the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) and Discovery Vitality, shows that children (teens and younger) scored a C in exercise – meaning only about half of our kids are as physically active as they should be.
The study also shows that the recommended guidelines of two hours of TV or less daily are not being met.
The report says: “Although we recognise the importance of physical activity for preventing obesity and chronic disease later in life, the benefits of physical activity far outweigh health alone. Not only is regular physical activity necessary for normal growth and development, it promotes social connectedness, inclusiveness and gender equity.”
Wits University exercise physiology researcher Dr Rebecca Meiring is clear: “Research in children between the ages of nine and 17 shows the less they sit, the better their quality of life – defined as the health, comfort and happiness they experience.”
Or as Australian comedian Tim Minchin put it to University of Western Australia graduates recently: “You jog, therefore you sleep, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst…”
The Healthy Active Kids study also rates social media and cellphone use as “high”. Teens are also getting too little sleep at a time of rapid physical, intellectual and emotional growth.
Meiring says studies show that globally there are now more overweight and obese children than there are children who are under-nourished‚ as physical activity levels decline. “Obesity in the girls, boys and adolescent category in South Africa is estimated to be between 15 and 30% – levels similar to American children.”
Meiring says the latest activity guidelines maintain that teenagers should aim for 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity – “the kind of activity that gets them huffing and puffing”.
She says “any sport, any outside play” is great. “The more the better for health.”
Meiring believes parents, caregivers, teachers and healthcare professionals need to “become more creative about making opportunities to increase physical activity”.
“It’s important to encourage teens to take part in a sport.
“For non-competitive kids, a social fitness class rather than structured sport might work best. The focus is not necessarily on winning but about their health.”
She says the Advocacy Council of the International Society for Physical Activity and Health (ISPAH) suggests promoting learning activities that don’t require kids to sit for prolonged periods of time in class. The Healthy Active Kids study notes that globally a movement called PlayStreets, which provides children with “pop-up play spaces to come together in a safe space to be active”, is taking root. “It involves organisations and parents requesting temporary closure of residential streets to reactivate a culture of children playing safely outside.”
However Dr Deepak Patel, principal clinical specialist at Discovery Vitality, says in order to promote healthy living in kids, parents must be good role models themselves.
“Anything healthy including physical activity is a learnt behaviour and it’s influenced by family as well as friends, teachers and coaches.”
The Healthy Active Kids study corroborates this: “The most powerful influence was when parents participated in physical activity with their children, provided transport or gave them encouragement.”
As Patel says, “Adolescents who are exposed to confidence-building opportunities in their physical abilities early in life tend to be more active later. And apart from the numerous health benefits, it’s been shown that regular physical activity can improve academic performance and promote feelings of well-being among adolescents.”
Focus on skills improvement, personal successes and having fun, he says. “Emphasise a child’s ‘best effort’ rather than ‘being the best’.”
Certified life and HeartMath coach Michele Frew believes that in order to promote healthier changes in teens’ lives, you have to “make it fun”. She says this still forms the basis of her relationship with her two daughters, now aged 21 and 23.
“We do Parkrun events together. We have always incorporated a few cultural life experiences into our year. We’ve travelled – even if it’s just a day’s outing. We still try new food experiences, and go to the theatre. By finding interesting things to focus on, that are not always linked to technology or screen time, we found a balance.”
The hardest part for parents, she says, is to follow through with ideas.
She says, “Look at your own patterns of sleep and your work balance, as well as your screen usage. What are you modelling, behaviour-wise, for your teens?”
Teach self-awareness, she says. “Ask how they feel when you know they’ve had less sleep than they need – and then after they’ve had a good night’s rest. Ask them if they notice how that impacts on their day.
“If you want your teens to eat more healthily, encourage them to spend time in the kitchen with you. Make decisions together about interesting recipes, and experiment with new ways of cooking. If you eat healthier meals most of the week, the odd takeaway won’t matter as much.”
Encourage them to join you in a challenge to come up with a strategy to get more sleep with less screen time. “See if you can meet your goals for the week,” Frew says. “Talk about how difficult or easy it’s been. Encourage each other to keep going.”
The Healthy Active Kids study also suggests families create a cellphone “parking lot” at home, and limit time use during certain periods. “Shutting down screens well before bedtime will also improve the quality of sleep and sleep habits in children,” it says.
And then repeat Australian comedian Tim Minchin’s advice: “Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run, whatever, but take care of your body. You’re going to need it.”
Parents should inculcate a culture of appropriate digital use and set limits from an early age, says Dr Deepak Patel. Based on what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, there should be no “screen time” before the age of 18 months except Skyping significant adults like grandparents. From 18 months to five years, parents should watch good-quality TV shows with their children, talking to them about what they’re watching.
Set healthy habits for teenagers:
Screen time should be allowed only after all other mandatory activities – homework, one hour of sport or play, creative activity, family dinner – are completed.
Create phone-free zones – including the dinner table.
No screen time one hour before bed.
No screens allowed in the bedroom or to be used while lights are out.
Parents should alert teenagers to online bullying, sexting and pornography and their digital footprint.
No driving and texting for parents. It’s a bad example.