This is really child’s play
Children today are as sleep-deprived as adults. Their access to junk food is limitless and the effects of technology ensnaring.
While focus on adult health and fitness is growing by the day, how much attention is being given to the younger age group (children, pre-teens and teens) is the big question for today’s parents. The rising incidence of childhood obesity and the prevalence of lifestyle diseases among the young is a matter of concern. The perception that children are more immune to ambient stresses is misplaced, and reality clearly suggests otherwise.
Demands of competitive education, the ensnaring effect of technology, limited availability of easily accessible open spaces, security concerns, easy access to fast food/ junk options, changing home/ school environments and ignorance on part of caregivers about the needs of this segment need to be addressed.
Perhaps the single biggest shift seems to be a move away from general play. A considerable chunk of our childhood was spent with friends playing outdoors in large groups. The onslaught of mobile phones, online gaming and electronic media had not taken over then. Communication was one on one. Pursuing sports was additional to this playing around. Eating out and ordering in were family activities that were limited to holidays or weekends. We generally walked, cycled and ran to wherever we wanted to (often long distances by today’s standards!). Sleep and waking patterns were more structured because there weren’t many distractions vying for attention.
Cut to the present. Cut-throat competition at school has caused an ugly mutation — harassed parents and stressed out kids following a tight schedule. Unstructured play has all but flown out of the window. We are left with a minority engaged in sports, aka ‘professional coaching’ that focuses myopically on sport-specific technique rather than overall mental and physical health and fitness.
No play is worth the time if it is not geared to producing competitive champions or podium finishers. The sports period is often an extension of this. There seems to be little focus on designing it to be a productively engaging time of the day for children throughout the year. Children today are as sleep-deprived as adults. Their changing circadian rhythm (internal biological clock) is further confounded by dependence and unlimited exposure to devices (laptops, smartphones, TV, etc.) which keep the brain over-stimulated, making sleep elusive.
Experts recommend eight hours of sleep even for teens. The practice of accumulating a sleep deficit over the week and then ‘catching up’ over the weekends is commonplace. This may make one fresh at the start of the week, but does little to address the cumulative deficit. Lack of proper sleep and rest has a direct negative impact on performance and health. It hits attention span, ferments mental and physical exhaustion and often manifests as moodiness and the notoriously irrational responses of teenagers to life situations. Try telling that to a teenager though!
Nutrition is another challenging aspect. Erratic timings, far too much junk food, presence of high sugar, salt and additives in almost all eating options (cereals, milk shakes, bottled juices, sodas, confectionary, chocolates, processed foods, etc.) and lack of targeted nutritional guidance for their age group makes it an uphill task to ensure that their dietary inputs match their growing requirements in tandem with their activities.
For children battling weight issues, you cannot impose the same plan that you do for adults. Their thought process is different and so are their needs. Options need to be suited to them to ensure adherence rather than scaled down blanket adult diets.
So, given all the modern day constraints and current lack of focussed and tailor-made options for this section of the population, what can we do?
To begin with, start with the family unit. Physical activity should be perceived and practised regularly by all as fun, not as a tedious exercise routine to be taken up only when weight and health problems erupt. Play games with them along with other like-minded adults and children. It can be exciting in a bigger group and gives children another reason to associate with and emulate active people.
Pay attention to factors impacting sleep. Avoid sports or intense activities too late in the evenings. These make the body and mind active too close to bedtime and can actually hamper sleep. TVs should ideally never be placed in bedrooms for the same reason.
If you are part of an exercise group, may be get children over on the weekends and have them join the group or have them play on their own as a team. The energy can help inculcate healthier habits.
Kids of different age groups need to be dealt with differently. Use your intuition as a parent and get proactive.
Vani B. Pahwa is an exercise and rehab specialist, corporate wellness coach, and foot and gait analyst.