Health Note: The ‘Big Three’ for Healthy Kids
By Christina Elston

It seems that news about a "killer virus," STD or environmental toxin hits the front page daily. Many of these are valid concerns, but there are other, simpler issues that merit our attention as parents, according to Neal Halfon, M.D., principal investigator in the National Children’s Study, the largest ongoing study of U.S. children’s health ever conducted. Halfon, who is also director of the Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities at UCLA, offers these three rules of thumb for parents:

1. Don’t forget the basics. The nation’s childhood obesity epidemic has made nutrition and exercise two of the biggest health issues facing kids today, Halfon says. He urges parents to teach their children – and be a role model for – good eating habits.
Kids also need opportunities to exercise in different ways so that they can find the sport or activity they like. Remember that school-age kids tend to emulate their parents. “So if Mom or Dad is doing yoga or taking a walk every day or biking, that’s teaching the child,” Halfon says.

2. Pay attention to mental health. While the number of kids with life-threatening illnesses is decreasing, the number of developmental and mental problems is increasing. “Those are things that pediatricians should be screening for,” Halfon says. When caught early, these problems can often be managed and treated. Left untreated, the problems can compound.
Around 20 percent of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health problem, and “most of the development of mental health disorders starts early on,” Halfon notes.

3. Advocate for healthier communities. Halfon advises parents to work toward making communities healthier for children. The increasing childhood asthma rate speaks to the need for cleaner air, both indoors and out, so take stock of air quality at home and advocate for greener schools that limit use of pesticides and other chemicals.

Transportation is another environmental hot button. “Something that drives me crazy is being around all these school buses that spout horrible diesel pollutants,” Halfon says. “We should be advocating for more opportunity for children to walk and use bicycles.”

In a world where we’re often anxious about our family’s well-being, giving our children a strong foundation in health and fitness is one of the best things parents can do, Halfon says. “It’s like we’re getting them ready for a long backpacking trip. You just want them to be ready, to be as healthy as possible.”

Christina Elston is a health writer for Dominion Parenting Media.

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