Bringing back recess

Last week staff writer Rebecca Schwab used information provided by Kate Huber, coordinator of the Tri-County Healthy Schools NY program about the benefits of increased physical activity and better nutrition in schools and in the community. This week, the writer focuses in on specifics for winter activity and healthy snacking again using information provided by Huber.

Winter is whistling around the corner, and everyone knows that in Western New York, that brings snow, snow and more snow. It’s already started.

But that doesn’t mean children should stay indoors until next spring. Children and adults alike still need activity in the colder months, and fresh air too. Unless it’s so cold that frostbite is a danger, bundle up in warm waterproof layers, grab the sleds, and get outside! Here is a list of fun winter activities:

Build snow forts

Shovel driveways and make snow mountains

Go sledding (and trudge back up the hill to go down it again!)

Have (gentle) snowball fights.

Go cross-country skiing

Go for nature walks, look for animal tracks in the snow and try to spot squirrels and birds

Walk on sidewalks at night as a family and enjoy holiday lights and decorations

Build snowmen or snow sculptures; add color with food coloring and water in reused ketchup bottles

Go ice skating if there is a safe, public rink nearby (Don’t go out on ponds or lakes. It’s very dangerous.)

And if going outside just isn’t an option, there are plenty of activities children can do indoors. In school, teachers should make sure the gym is always full with children playing. If schools have pools, parents can find out when open swim sessions are held, and go swimming as a family. At home, families can push coffee tables aside and do fun exercise DVDs together, or have “contests” for things like who can do the most jumping jacks in a row. (Prizes don’t have to be sugary treats.)

In the classroom, there are things teachers can do to get kids moving without needing much space.

“I am available to work with schools and train teachers on ways to incorporate physical activity in the classroom,” Huber said. “Some simple examples include putting on music and having a dance party, having students jump or clap for each letter as they are practicing spelling words, or just have students march in place. Some great websites for ways to put movement into the lesson plans are www.activeacademics.org, www.fitkidsnc.com and www.emc.cmich.edu/BrainBreaks. I have a longer list of websites and additional resources on my website, www.e1b.org/HSNY.”

Some parents and school administrators may think they are doing a “good enough” job keeping their children and students healthy, but the numbers are hard to argue with. According to the NYS Health Department, the percentage of children and adolescents who are obese in Cattaraugus County is 19.2 percent, and in Chautauqua County the rate is 19 percent. Those numbers are higher than the rest of the state and the country. The percentage of children and adolescents who are obese in New York State (except NYC) is 17.6 percent. According to the CDC the national average is 16.9 percent. That means we’ve got a lot of work to do if we want our children to be healthier and happier, to do better in school and to develop healthy body images and high self-esteem.

Another issue is that obese children are likely to become obese adults. The problems that obese adults had as children will follow them. They are more likely to have health problems like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gout, hip and bone problems, and arthritis. They are more likely to be depressed and anxious than their healthier peers. They will be less emotionally satisfied with their lives, have trouble concentrating at work, and be less likely to experience restful sleep.

“The number of obese adults in NYS (except NYC) is 23.2 percent and the number of adults who are obese nationally is 35.7 percent,” Huber says. “Locally, we fall in between those numbers, with rates for Cattaraugus and Chautauqua being 31.3 percent and 27.3 percent respectively.”

Huber cites the “Let’s Move Campaign” to answer how we’ve reached such troubling numbers, and most of it isn’t surprising. Children move less than they used to. They don’t walk to school or spend hours playing outside like they used to. Parents work more, and children eat fewer home-cooked meals. Portion sizes are out of control. Physical activities and sports programs are being cut from school budgets. Children are spending their free time in front of computers, playing video games and watching television. Parents are deciding more and more that fast food is a fine option for lunch and dinner.

“In total, we are now eating 31 percent more calories than we were forty years ago – including 56 percent more fats and oils and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners,” Huber quotes from www.let’smove.gov. “The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970. Eight to 18 year-old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including, TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies, and only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.”

Local families and school employees should read these numbers and then take a closer look at their programming and eating habits and options. Are these choices the best and healthiest for their young charges? How can each person become part of the solution? How can the community as a whole stop these frightening numbers from increasing, and start bringing them down?

Of course, every child is different, and parents should talk to their pediatricians about their children’s health and what a “healthy weight” for each child is. Doctors can also give parents advice on what types of physical activity – and how much, their children should be getting – as well as nutritional advice. For safety, no rigorous exercise program or diet should be implemented without first consulting a doctor.

Huber cautions parents about foods that seem healthy, but are not. She recommends reading the labels on food packaging, so that parents know what they are feeding their children.

“There are a lot of foods that seem healthy, but would surprise people if they read the labels. For example, Intense Vanilla Flavored Milk, which I see a lot of kids drinking, contains over 250 calories, 8 grams of fat and over 8 teaspoons of sugar. Flavored yogurt has a lot of added sugars, as well. It is much healthier to buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit and nuts to it,” Huber says.

And of course, there are foods and beverages that should be skipped or replaced:

“Parents can reduce or eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from their kid’s diets. Soda, sports drinks and juice all have a lot of sugar, sometimes contributing 200 300 calories a day to a child’s diet. One hundred percent fruit juice is OK occasionally, but a piece of fruit is a much better choice because it contains fiber and will satisfy their hunger for longer,” Huber notes. “With the money saved from buying sugary drinks, the family can purchase more fruits and vegetables.”

Huber also breaks down different age groups, and how their nutritional needs differ. Parents should think about that before feeding their children of different ages the same things and same amounts.

“Preschool-age children with an average daily intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t have more than about 64 calories, or 4 teaspoons, of added sugars a day, according to the 2009 study. Children who are 4 to 8 years old and normally have about 1,600 calories a day shouldn’t get more than about 48 calories, or 3 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. Their recommended limits are lower than the limits for preschool-aged children in order to make extra room for their additional nutritional needs. Preteens and teenagers who eat 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day can have about 5 to 8 tsp of added sugars, or 80 to 128 calories from added sugars a day,” she explains.

Because fast food seems more convenient, parents need to plan for snacks that will help them skip the drive-thru windows. All of these can be prepackaged on weekends to save precious minutes during busy weeks. Here are a few ideas:

Homemade trail mixes with dry cereal, small pretzels, dried fruit, nuts and some chocolate chips

Cheese sticks

Almonds

Hard boiled eggs

Cut up veggies and low-fat dip such as hummus or yogurt

Apples with peanut butter

“ants on a log” (celery, peanut butter and raisins)

When parents, teachers, school administrators, community leaders and children themselves work together, they can make their lives healthier and happier. Try out a few of these suggestions, cut out the worst of the junk food, move more as a family, and feel the benefits!

Send comments on this article to rschwab@observertoday.com