Four healthy family habits can trim your kids’ risk for obesity by 40 percent, boost their IQs and success in school, and even help them land better jobs and make more money as adults, recent studies suggest. Not only do these simple family routines literally help kids become healthy, wealthy and wise, but they also offer powerful protection against chronic diseases.
Amid the growing childhood obesity epidemic, research offers some surprising answers to slimming down kids—and three of the most important habits don’t involve diet or exercise. And while fitness remains crucial, there’s an easy way to make it fun for kids—and the entire family.
There’s an increasing recognition among scientists that families’ daily routines play a key role in protecting kids’ health. Here are four science-based strategies to start on a lifelong path to optimal wellness.
Go biking or rollerblading. A study of more than 1.2 million Swedish men who had physical fitness and intelligence tests at age 18 (as a requirement for military service) found that teens who performed best on exercise bikes had the highest scores in tests of global intelligence, as well as verbal, logical, technical and other types of intelligence. The researchers also found that teens whose fitness improved between ages 15 and 18 had significantly higher IQs than those whose fitness declined during those years.
Surprisingly, the researchers didn’t find any link between brawn and brainpower. Instead, better test scores were solely linked to cardiovascular fitness—not muscle strength—probably because cardio increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain. The study also revealed that as adults, men who performed best on bikes as teens were more likely to have graduated from college or gotten an advanced degree, and earned higher incomes.
Another study of 3,345 kids in grades 8 to 12 found that students who participated in wheel-based sports like biking, rollerblading, or skateboarding four or more times a week were more than twice as likely to maintain a healthy weight as adults, compared to their more sedentary friends.
Limit tube time. Kids who spend the most time parked in front of a screen as preschoolers have bigger bellies and weaker legs as they grow up, a new study reports. The researchers tracked the TV viewing habits of 1,314 Canadian kids at ages two and four, then tested their fitness when they were in second and fourth grade.
For each extra hour that the kids had watched TV per week when they were 29 and 53 months old, their scores on a standing long jump test in second grade (to check explosive muscle strength) fell, while their waist measurement rose. Excessive belly fat strongly predicts risk for later developing heart disease, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of heart attack risk factors).
An earlier study by researchers at Ohio State University (OSU), involving about 8,500 four-year-olds, found that kids who watched fewer than two hours of TV daily were nearly 25 percent less likely to become obese, while kids whose families also practiced two other habits listed below were at nearly 40 percent lower risk. A long-running British study more than 14,000 kids had similar results.
Dine as a family. In the OSU study, kids who dined with their family at least five nights a week had a dramatically lower risk for obesity, than those who grabbed food on the run without adult supervision. Research shows that when families eat together, they tend to consume more fruits and vegetables—and fewer fried foods and sugary soda.
Studies also link frequent dining as a family to a surprising array of other benefits for kids: They’re more likely to avoid smoking and drug or alcohol abuse, have higher school grade, and enjoy better relationships with their parents, leading to less stress and strife in the home. However, the healthy effects of eating together can be undermined if the family dines in front of the TV, which encourages mindless overeating, and reduces family bonding, experts report.
Get kids to bed on time. Skimping on slumber is strongly linked to obesity in both kids and adults for several reasons. Sleep-deprived kids are less active, so they burn fewer calories during the day. They also have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which revs up appetite, leading to more snacking. In the OSU study, four-year-olds who averaged 10.5 hours of sleep a night were less likely to pack on excess pounds.
Getting even one extra hour of sleep per night can dramatically improve school performance, a new Chinese study of primary schoolchildren reports. The researchers found that kids who averaged less than nine hours of Z’s per night had worse scores in tests of memory, logic, reason and attention, compared to those who slept more than ten hours.
The doctors who conducted the study recommend ten hours of sleep a night for kids in primary school, and nine hours for students in middle school. They also report that about 20 to 30 percent of kids have sleep problems, which can put them at higher risk for high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes as adults.
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