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  • "In Shape": A Different Set of Rules for Kids

  • Girls in the grassBeing in shape and at a healthy weight is important for everyone, but kids don't need to play by the same rules as adults to get there.

    What does "in shape" mean for a kid?

    In general, in shape means being at an appropriate weight, being flexible and having strong muscles, including a strong heart. But while most adults require specific types of exercise to stay strong and improve cardiovascular endurance, children just need to be active.

    "The physical activity recommendation for children is approximately 60 minutes per day," says Barbara Robinson, RD, MPH, pediatric nutrition specialist at Hasbro Children's Hospital. "However, children do not have to exercise at a target heart rate to reap the benefit of activity, so it should be met through enjoyable play such as a game of tag, kicking a soccer ball or even walking to school when safe."

    Beyond physical benefit, national research shows activity is important for kids not only for fitness, but also because it encourages relaxation and the development of resiliency, confidence and competence.

    Weight watch: How concerned should parents be?

    Body Mass Index (BMI) is the tool typically used to assess weight status. It evaluates weight based on height. Because children go through many stages of growth, healthy BMIs values for children frequently change and vary from those for adults.

    "Parents need to be informed. They should understand that childhood obesity is a problem, and that there are real health risks associated with it," says Robinson.

    In previous decades, fewer kids were overweight and as heavy as many kids are today. As a result, medical problems such as type 2 diabetes are becoming prevalent in adolescents and even in young children at startling rates.

    "While many factors can account for this change, our contemporary environment is a major contributor," says Robinson. "We ride instead of walk. Our kids face processed foods at home, school and in restaurants, and spend far too many hours in front TVs, video games and computers-a significant risk factor for childhood obesity."

    The flip side: Is my child too thin?

    There are two sides to every coin, and some parents feel their child may be too thin.

    "If a child's height growth is good for their age, using a standard pediatric growth chart as a guide, then they are receiving enough calories and protein," says Robinson. "Some children have a 'lean' body type, and growing well in height is usually an indicator of adequate nutrition."

    Parents should always discuss concerns with their child's pediatrician, who can plot their child's height and weight on a growth chart and discuss their progression. If necessary, pediatricians may recommend testing for truly underweight children to check for underlying conditions.

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