By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Teasing and bullying children at risk of obesity has been linked to BMI and fat mass gains, a 2019 study found. On the other hand, proper physical education practices beginning in childhood can lead to lifelong good habits in exercise and nutrition.
It’s hard enough convincing ourselves to eat right and hit the gym, but the earlier we learn those behaviors and keep to the patterns of healthy foods and regular exercise, the more likely we are to live longer, happier lives. It’s beneficial to properly encourage physical education and development in our children as early as infancy.
The Trick to Getting Kids off the Couch
Promoting physical fitness in children may seem increasingly difficult with the advent of tablets, video games, smartphones, and computers with high-speed internet. However, even little changes to their daily routines can make a big difference over time. “A pound of human body fat contains about 3,500 calories,” said Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. “If you reduce a child’s activity by about 120 calories a day—we’re talking about the amount of calories a child might burn playing outside for an hour—those extra 120 calories a day will become a pound of fat in about a month. That’s 12 pounds a year, and that might be an extra 15 percent of a child’s overall body weight.”
Dr. Vishton recommended positive reinforcement when a child exercises, and he said that point systems work wonders. If the child does extra exercise one day compared to normal, such as an increased number of bike rides in a week, he or she gets a point. When enough points are earned, the child gets a toy or a reward. The same points can be given to the child for reducing his or her time sitting in front of a screen—maybe one point for halving their average time, two for avoiding it altogether one day. “Both strategies aim to increase the child’s physical activity and thus the number of calories burned in a given day,” Dr. Vishton said. “The difference is in what the reinforcement strategy targets. In either case, however, if the number of calories burned per day increases, you could expect a reduction in unwanted body fat.”
The Many Benefits of Team Sports
Getting your child involved in a team-based sport like soccer, baseball, basketball, or something similar offers many more benefits than previously believed. The physical benefits in the muscular system, cardiovascular system, and skeletal system have been well-documented, but many psychological benefits have now been added to the list. “Children who participate in team sports tend to score better on a range of standardized tests, including academic achievement and IQ tests,” Dr. Vishton said. “Assessment of child social skills also suggests a positive impact for team sport participation. There is even circumstantial evidence that participating in regular exercise results in increased formation of new synapses in the brain.”
Perhaps most crucially, participating in team sports raises self-esteem, which is, on average, at its lowest point in our teenage years—especially in girls. “Extreme lows in self-esteem are associated with a lot of very negative behaviors: depression, eating disorders, withdrawal from everyday activities, dangerous experimentation with drugs and other illicit activities, even suicide,” Dr. Vishton said. He added that girls’ esteem is overly focused on body image, and that most girls have notably negative opinions of their own bodies.
To counter this, he suggested speaking with your kids about the media’s portrayals of women and the unrealistic and unfair expectations they put on society. Unsurprisingly, team sports is also a remedy, since it encourages not only physical activity but also social interaction with peers, making a network of friends with similar goals, and an overall lack of emphasis on physical appearance as a judgment of a person.
As you encourage your child’s physical development, they’ll not only have healthier bodies but may also perform better in school, boost their own self-esteem, and form new friendships, which will heighten their social skills. This encouragement can be done with a rewards-based points system of positive reinforcement and by finding a physical activity like a team sport that your child is interested in and fostering that talent.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton contributed to this article. Dr. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.