Getting kids active and eating better: here is what we need to aim for

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

One in four children, and almost two in three adults in Australia are overweight or obese, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

With children more amenable to their parents' influence than they are as teenagers, ingraining healthy eating and lifestyle habits into them early is crucial for helping them remain within a healthy weight range, or lose excess weight, GP and mother of two Dr Jill Gamberg said. But you've got to practise what you preach.

"Many of us sit at work for eight hours per day and [often don't leave our desks]. At lunch we sit on our smartphones...we sit on our commute to-and-from work. In the evenings, we sit and watch television" – often with junk food on our laps. "For children, sadly it is not much different."

Gamberg expressed her concern that physical activity has been removed or significantly reduced at schools. "At my children's school, they only do one structured hour of physical activity per week."

The Australian Health Survey's most recent data (2011-12) found that only one third of children, and one in ten 'young people' (five to 17-year-olds) meet the nation's physical activity guidelines. 60 per cent of adults do not meet the recommended guideline for adults: 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity daily. The National Health Survey (2011-12) found that less than one in three children and teenagers stick to the guideline of "no more than [two] hours of screen-based entertainment" per day.

Exercise: What to be aiming for

Children five and under should not be kept inactive for more than one hour at a time, with the exception of sleeping, Gamberg said, referring to The Department of Health's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.

"They should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day and should spend less than one hour per day watching television or using smart devices.

"Children five to 17 should partake in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day - that's aerobic activities like running and skipping, and muscle-strengthening activities. [The permitted two hours of] sedentary activity and/or screen-time should [involve] frequent breaks."

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Let's talk about food

Australian Bureau of Statistics data (2014-15)  found that only 50 per cent of adults and 68 per cent of children are eating enough fruit. Seven per cent of adults and five per cent of children have an adequate vegetable intake.

Children aged four to 11 should be consuming the recommended 4.5 to five daily servings of vegetables and legumes, and 1.5 to two servings of fruit, Gamberg said.

According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, depending on their age and gender, children require about four to five servings of whole grains like brown rice, 1.5 to 2.5 servings of protein such as lean meat, fish, legumes and eggs, and 1.5 to three servings of dairy or calcium-rich dairy alternatives (such as tahini).

"It is up to parents to make sure our children get the [physical activity and] nutrients they need," Gamberg said. "If kids see parents being more active – walking to work, getting outside, playing sport or going to the gym, they will do the same. If families sit down together and enjoy home-cooked meals with a wide variety of plant foods, this may just change the future of our children's health." 

For more information visit Healthshare, a joint venture with Fairfax to improve the health of regional Australians.