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When school lets out, all bets are off. It’s a carefree, magical time of year made for letting loose — sometimes too loose.
“Irregular sleep, meals and activity schedules, plus more screen time, can all combine to create the perfect environment for kids to gain excessive weight,” says Jessica Hildebrandt, MS, RD, a registered dietitian with Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Lifestyle Medicine Program. “We see it every year.”
About one in every four kids in Colorado is overweight or obese. While summer weight gain can happen to any kid, overweight and obese kids are both more susceptible to it and at higher risk of health problems resulting from it.
Fortunately, says Hildebrandt, there are lots of ways to keep kids active and healthy all summer:
Kids tend to go to bed later during the summer. That can lead to less sleep, and when they don’t get enough, it can affect their hormone balance, energy level and even their appetite. Set bedtimes and wake-up times close to what they are during the school year — and stick to them.
When consistent meal schedules go out the window, kids tend to “graze” all day — often on junk food — taking in significantly more calories than they would from meals. As much as possible, set meal and snack times and permit kids to eat only during those times.
Kids often hit the junk food when parents are at work or unable to closely supervise. Plan ahead: instead of keeping chips, cookies, sugary drinks and other high-calorie, low-nutrition foods in the house, stock healthy alternatives like low-sugar yogurt, low-fat cheese, hummus, fruits and vegetables.
When kids are sitting in front of a screen, they aren’t active, so set limits. The general guideline is no more than two hours per day. Many devices come with controls parents can use to block or limit kids’ access, and if parents can’t be there to supervise, they can always disable or take the devices with them. Want to explore what screen time limits might work for your family? The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a helpful family media plan tool.
Lots of rec centers in Denver and the metro area offer kids memberships, activities and classes for free or at significantly reduced cost (see “resources” below). Sign them up for something that interests them — anything they can do outside the house that structures their day. Bonus: the walk there counts as activity, too.
For families who live in areas where kids have a harder time getting out, there are games like Twister, scavenger hunts or even just kicking a ball around.
Household tasks like sweeping, vacuuming, laundry, dishes, changing sheets and general cleaning offer kids a great way not only to learn how to contribute to the family, but to burn energy while they’re at it.
For parents who don’t get the same change in schedule as their kids during the summer, it can be tough to make sure kids are eating right and staying active. The following resources may help: