Nick Machacek is in many ways a typical 10-year-old: He enjoys spending time with his friends and likes to use the computer. Nick's doctor noticed his weight was tending toward the high side, like many kids in the U.S. today.
But that's where the similarities to many kids end because Nick and his parents decided to take charge of their health and get moving.
In addition to making dietary changes, Nick and his Joliet family now have a goal of exercising 60 minutes a day, and it's making a difference.
"It's not really that hard," Nick says. "I ride my bike a lot, and my scooter, and I play basketball with my best friend. At school ... I get a lot of cardio-we like to play tag. On nice days, we have games of kickball where there's a lot of running."
Even when he's not outside, Nick looks for opportunities to exercise.
Getting kids to exercise can be a challenge in these times of video games and texting, but study after study shows kids need to move to stay healthy. The statistics are scary: about 17 percent of children and adolescents, age 2-19, are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These kids are at risk for health problems, including a greater chance of having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, and are more likely to become obese as adults.
"Long-lasting weight control and fitness aren't likely without increased activity," says Dr. Robert Andersen, pediatrician and author of The No-Gimmick Guide to Raising Fit Kids. Like adults, Andersen says kids should participate in the three building blocks of fitness: aerobic (walking, running, swimming), strength (weight lifting) and flexibility (stretching).
Andersen and Ken Rashad, youth fitness instructor for the Warrenville Park District and Nick's exercise "coach," say it's easier to get kids off the computer and into physical activity if you exercise as a family.
"Make opting for healthier food choices and becoming more physically active a group effort," says Rashad. "When possible, parents should consider joining their child during daily physical activities. This will boost your child's confidence and self-esteem as they look forward to exercising more frequently."
Nick and his family exercise together when they can.
"Kids should get at least one hour of moderate physical activity daily," adds Rashad. "Ideally, the activity would include a combination of strength training, cardiovascular activities and stretching."
Getting it done
If an hour a day sounds like a lot, start with smaller increments and work up to 60 minutes. Breaking exercise up into smaller time frames that add up to an hour counts, too. Chart your family's progress. Set goals, measure, demonstrate improvement, then set new goals.
"Motivate your kids by rewarding them with something other than food," Andersen recommends. For example, extra time for a hobby, credits toward purchase of home fitness equipment, a movie with mom and dad, tickets to a ball game or a sleepover with friends may get pre-teens and adolescents up off the couch; younger children often are motivated by stickers on a chart, extra reading at bedtime or trips to the zoo. "All kids will appreciate hugs, kisses and sincere praise."
You don't have to break the family budget either. No need to join a fancy health club: Take a hike, bike, swim, jump rope, play outside, participate in competitive sports and other sports like tennis and golf.
"Build slowly and stay with it," Andersen advises. "It's essential kids enjoy the exercise. Let them choose the activities as much as possible."
Nick's routine, under Rashad's supervision, consists of warming up with leg and arm stretches; doing a "circuit" of activity, including jumping hurdles, doing 20 jumping jacks and 15 push ups; and going up and down a stair step 20 times. They finish by running a few laps around a track, followed by cool-down exercises.
In addition, it's a good idea to balance activities three or four times a week with a day of rest between sessions to allow muscle tissue to recover.
"Some muscle soreness is normal, especially when starting, but pain or swelling isn't, and needs to be evaluated by a physician," says Andersen, who was named one of America's Top Pediatricians by the Consumers' Research Council of America.
Whatever exercise you choose, consider this a change in your family's lifestyle and continue it indefinitely.
Empower your kids
Nick's mom, Sherry, says her son maintains an exercise log to keep track of his activity and is making sure Nick learns to make good, healthy choices.
"I can't watch him 24 hours a day," she says. "He has to be able to make choices himself."
"Ken encourages me to get my heart rate up a bit, but not be super-tired, just enough where you feel good that you worked out," Nick says. "And I burn tons of calories. I'm feeling a lot better."