With school back in session and winter quickly approaching, this is the time of year many families find it hard to stay healthy. Not to worry – there are many ways to fit healthy choices into your busy schedules in ways that appeal to kids and parents.
Without sufficient sleep, kids and adults can suffer multiple negative health consequences. Lack of sleep will impact mental function, focus and emotional state, as well as the ability to manage stressful situations. Sleep deprivation impacts your immune function which can make you more susceptible to infections, leading to missed days at school or work. Insufficient sleep also increases risk for multiple chronic diseases including obesity and heart disease. Studies have even linked consistently short duration of sleep to increased risk for death. Most children and teens need 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night, while most adults need 7 to 9 hours. If you are having trouble getting to sleep or sleeping through the night, major factors can include stress, stimulants before bed and sleep disruptions. Developing a consistent bedtime routine; exercising regularly and practicing other stress-reducing activities such as yoga or meditation; avoiding caffeine, alcohol and large meals before bedtime; and removing electronic devices from the bedroom such as TVs and cell phones can help improve sleep quality and duration.
Breakfast is an especially important meal for kids – they don’t have the option for a mid-morning snack like most adults do, so making sure they are fueled up before school is essential for their ability to focus, learn and retain new information. To ensure your child’s breakfast holds them over until lunch, be sure to include protein. Not only will this help keep their hunger at bay, protein is essential for growing bodies.
But morning protein isn’t only important for kids – parents need that early-in-the-day protein as well. Until your body meets a minimum amount of protein each day, you cannot build muscle, so spread that protein out throughout your day to ensure you maintain or increase lean muscle mass, the driver of your metabolism and the foundation for a high quality of life as you age. Your protein requirements depend on your size, but for a person who weighs 150 pounds, a minimum intake of 40 grams of protein is recommended per day, or 55 grams per day for a person who weighs 200 pounds. However, double that is even better, especially if you are trying to lose weight. Foods that have some of the highest amounts of protein per calorie include fish, lean meats (chicken, turkey, beef, pork), low-fat cheeses (cottage cheese, mozzarella), unsweetened yogurt (Greek yogurt is especially high in protein), eggs, beans and nuts or seeds.
To keep your week simple, encourage your kids to eat school lunch every day. Studies show that lunches eaten at school tend to be healthier than those brought from home or other outside sources. Public schools in our region participate in the federal school lunch program which means not only do they meet high nutrition standards, but some are paid for in part or in total, depending on the family’s financial status, by the federal government.
When we are tired and stressed after long days of school and work, our brains are less capable of making healthy choices, so take steps to remove the decision making from the end of your day. Instead, do your meal planning and grocery shopping on the weekends. Check online for make-ahead recipes that will appeal to your family. Buy easy-to-eat healthy snacks for kids to grab when they get home from school. Make sure they are ready to go – for example, wash and chop fruits and vegetables and store in clear containers in the fridge.
Being active does not only apply to “working out.” The more you move instead of sit, the better for your health. Consider walking instead of driving your kids to and from school. Not only does this replace sedentary time with active time, collective efforts to get families to walk to and from school can decrease car accidents and improve air quality around the schools. This is also a great time to talk to your kids – discuss their friends, teachers, what is going well – or not so well – at school. Plus, studies have shown that walking for 20 min – compared to sitting – before taking an exam increased brain activity and improved test scores in kids. If you live too far from school, drive part way, park your car and walk the rest of the way.
How else can you squeeze physical activity into each day? Plan activities you can do together as a family – or at least find ways to make activities active for everyone. For example, if you take your child to soccer practice, rather than watching from a chair, walk laps around the soccer field while you watch or jump in and play with the kids. Take a walk around the block together at the end of the day. If the shorter days get in the way, use flashlights for a fun nighttime adventure.
Leah Whigham is a nutrition and obesity scientist and Executive Director of the Institute for Healthy Living at UTEP and Associate Professor at UTEP. The Institute for Healthy Living provides leadership through innovative and sustainable approaches to promote healthy eating and active living in the Paso del Norte Region.