Start Strong
To ensure the best odds for lifelong health, make sure your children eat well and exercise and teach them to manage stress.

By Christine Loomis

The first two decades of life encompass the most dramatic sequence of physical, emotional, mental and social changes. During this developmental period, a child goes from helplessness to being capable of stunningly complex thoughts, deeds and physical actions, and from complete dependence to being fully on his or her own.

Throughout this process, parents serve as nurturers and guides. It's a critical role to play, given the unique challenges of our children's early lives. Most experts consider proper diet, stress relief and regular exercise the key building blocks children need to acquire and internalize a healthy lifestyle.

Eat For Wellness
It's difficult to underestimate the importance of learning sound eating principles at an early age. To sustain growth, children need a balanced diet that includes enough calcium and foods rich in antioxidants, complex carbohydrates, protein and dietary fibers, among other important nutrients. Instill good habits, like eating nutritious breakfasts and avoiding hydrogenated fats. According to one Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, relentless television ads for unhealthy foods contribute to kids' poor eating choices, as does the current trend of placing fast-food outlets and vending machines in school cafeterias. Take an active role in helping your child make smart decisions about food. If a child has a well-balanced diet, he or she is less likely to crave fats and sugars. Still, no one wants to feel deprived or guilty about food. It's OK for children to indulge in a treat every now and then, as long as their overall diet is good.

Manage Stress
Stress is omnipresent in kids' lives, and the culprits are many. Violence has moved with increasing regularity into our schools and, via television and video games, into our homes. Rather than shelter kids, most experts suggest we make them aware of dangers and teach ways to cope, so they can protect themselves when we can't be there.

Surround your children with role models whose lives you respect and admire—your kids will then have a strong support network. Empowering kids is a good thing, but it's difficult to completely avoid stress. Scott Shannon, MD, a child psychiatrist, holistic physician, and president of the American Holistic Medical Association, blames stress for increasing signs of mental illness in American children. Shannon claims it is now estimated that one out of every four children in the United States will suffer serious depression by age 18, with stress a major factor. Depression is generally characterized by symptoms that include apathy, changes in eating habits and a lack of emotional expression; the most common form, situational depression, usually also includes extreme sadness and abates in about three months. Both stress and depression are associated with a host of ancillary problems, including drug use, suicide, violence and the onset of many physical diseases.

Fortunately, parents have options. We can't change the harsh realities of the world, but we can change their presence in our children's lives. Making even minor adjustments in the way our kids live, eat, and play can drastically decrease stress and boost resistance to depression. Make sure they get plenty of sleep. Feed them healthy meals. Teach them what to say or how to react to someone who may be bullying them at school. Get help from a professional if stress becomes a major factor.

Get Off The Couch
It seems almost silly to have to worry about kids getting enough exercise. Running around and making up active games is part of the normal unstructured play of childhood. But television, video games and computers now compete with physical play.

Kids need calcium for strong bones and teeth and for healthy heart muscles and blood. In 2000, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the secretary of the Department of Education made a joint report to the president, noting that the number of overweight and obese American children has more than doubled since 1980. The key culprit: the amount of time kids spend with electronic media and the corresponding lack of physical activity. A 1999 survey by the CDC found that kids spend an average of four hours per day watching television and videos, playing video games, and using the computer. A second survey showed that between 1977 and 1995, walking and bicycling by kids ages 5 to 15 decreased by 40 percent.

Tackling the issue of your kids' well-being benefits the whole family, not just today but throughout a lifetime. Reduced exercise among children has caused increased weight gain and other problems. There has been a corollary increase in childhood heart disease and Type II diabetes. When kids are active, not only do they improve their physical health, they improve all areas of their lives. Several studies—including the 1996 "Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health," the CDC's 1997 "Youth Risk Behavior Survey," and others conducted by the East Meadow, New York­based Women's Sports Foundation—have shown that children involved in sports and physical activities do better academically, have higher self-esteem, and are less likely to become involved in self-destructive behaviors, including taking drugs and contemplating suicide. Regular activity also helps prevent osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and symptoms of depression and stress.

Face Time Is Key
It's up to us to make certain that our children eat well, exercise and manage stress. Happily, this duty is an opportunity to spend more "fun" time together—getting them involved in activities we love and cheering them on as they pursue their favorite sports. Tackling the issue of your kids' well-being benefits the whole family, not just today but throughout a lifetime. When we do our best in terms of our kids' health, ultimately we're doing the best for ourselves, too.

Christine Loomis writes about family issues for Parents, Family Life, Time, and Scientific American Explorations.