With more than 108 million adults, or 61 percent of the adult U.S. population overweight or obese, it's no wonder our children are headed toward unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles. By setting good examples early on and establishing habits of healthy eating and physical fitness, parents can give their children the gift of health to carry them through adulthood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 percent of American adults do not get enough physical activity to provide health benefits, and 25 percent of adults are not active at all in their leisure time.
Obese children can have serious health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and respiratory complications, and often carry these conditions into adulthood, according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
The social and emotional fallout of being overweight also causes low self-esteem, behavior and learning problems, and depression.
But for young kids, it shouldn't be about diet and exercise. It should be about being healthy and having fun.
"The No. 1 role model is the parent. The kid does what the parent does," said Stacy Beeson, a registered and licensed dietician in Boise, Idaho. "Parents need to control the home environment.
"It's sad to see meals and exercise squeezed out of our lives," Beeson added. "Research behind the family meal has shown kids get more nutrient-dense foods, and less chance kids will take up drugs or alcohol." Beeson offers these tips for parents:
* Set a schedule for meals and snacks to discourage all-day grazing.
* Eat at the table, as a family. Use the time to share news and tell stories.
* Don't eat in front of the television or computer. This leads to fast — and mindless — eating. Limit overall screen time throughout the day.
* Don't give up on fresh fruits and vegetables. It's up to the parents to keep offering healthy foods, even if the child initially snubs them. It can take up to 20 offerings for a child to come around.
* Don't be a short-order cook. Catering to a picky eater will only enforce the habit, and won't allow the child to learn and explore.
* Make meal time pleasant and relaxed. Do away with the "clean your plate" rule.
* Always add something fresh. Even if you're pressed for time and have to whip up a frozen pizza, add fresh toppings like chopped tomatoes or fresh spinach.
* Bring the kids into the kitchen. Let them help with selecting the menu and preparing the meal. Take them to the grocery store and let them pick out their favorite fresh fruits and vegetables.
* Set limits. Children have a natural ability to self-regulate when it comes to eating habits. It's up to the parents to offer a variety of fresh, healthy, colorful foods.
* Get the whole family involved. Healthy eating doesn't work if it's just focused on the children. Create a healthy kitchen.
* If you're trying to undo unhealthy habits, start slow. Introduce a healthy, and possibly unfamiliar, food along with something familiar. And never focus on a child's weight.
Experts agree that the biggest deterrent to physical activity is screen time. Limit the number of hours your child watches TV or plays on the computer, and get moving.
Infants and toddlers may not be ready to take up tennis or spike a volleyball, but there are plenty of options that cater to the physical fitness of youngsters.
At the Little Gym in Eagle, Idaho, the mission is to make exercise fun with the goal of building confidence. Owners Pat and Lisa Kelly will enroll children 4 months to 3 years with their parents. After 3, kids start taking classes by themselves in non-competitive gymnastics, dance, karate, cheerleading and sports skills through age 12.
"The kids don't even realize they're creating habits at a young age," Kelly said.
Can't afford to join a gym or take a class? Rather stick close to home, or stay indoors? Emphasize activity, not exercise, especially among younger children. Your child's activity doesn't have to be a structured exercise program or competitive sport. Free-play activities, such as playing hide-and-seek, tag or jump-rope, also burn calories and improve fitness.
There are plenty of ways to incorporate physical fitness into your daily routine for free.
* Go for a bike ride or take a walk around the neighborhood after dinner.
* For really young kids, blow bubbles and have them chase and reach for them.
* Celebrate a birthday, holiday or other special day with a physical activity — a hikes or a snowball fight in the backyard — instead of a calorie-laden meal.
* Rally the families in your neighborhood for a game of touch football or tag at the local park.
* If it's too cold outside, turn off the TV, crank up the stereo and dance around the living room with your kids.
* If you want an active child, set a positive example by being active yourself. Find fun activities that the whole family can do together. Exercise should never be a punishment or a chore.
* Mix it up. Let each child take a turn choosing the activity of the day or week.