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Ask Dr. Sears: Encouraging a More Active Child

Q. My 7-year-old only wants to stay inside and play video games. How can I get him in the habit of being active and enjoying exercise?

A. The number-one health problem facing American children today is childhood obesity. This epidemic has two causes: too much junk food and too little exercise. Once upon a time, children would run, jump, and play for entertainment, but now, they tend to sit. Not only will being more active help keep kids lean and trim—but did you know that exercise also boosts immunity and improves mood?

Here's how to get your little video game player off the couch and into better health:

Moving earns sitting

We have a policy in our family that a child must spend the same amount of time doing some physical activity as they do in front of a screen. For example, if he wants to play video games for an hour, he must first play outside for at least an hour.

Model moving

If you are a family of couch potatoes, you're giving your child the message that exercise is not important—so get active as a family. For younger children, don't brand it as exercise—that makes it sound like a chore, something only adults would do. Instead say, "We're going to go outside and play!" Take a walk together, play tag, start a ballgame; whatever you can do to move together.

Move while you watch 

In my pediatric practice, we've had a lot of success with our Lean Program, which focuses on fitness and weight control. Its purpose is to get children moving while they watch TV or play video games. For example, while your child is watching his favorite show, encourage him to jump on a mini-trampoline or flex his muscles with exercise bands. Or take advantage of the latest twist on video games that gets children dancing instead of sitting: a mat that allows the user to operate the game controls with his feet, instead of his hands.

Play show and tell 

Since kids are performance-oriented, capitalize on this in relation to your child's interests. If your child likes to play soccer, for example, drive home the point that lots of running and being active will help his muscles grow stronger and help him be a better soccer player. Market the changes as your child's very own personal program. This is what we do in our practice: We don't phrase it as a "weight-loss program," or a "fitness program," but rather "Jimmy's play-soccer-better program," which makes it more fun.

Use peer pressure 

Invite over a few of your child's pals, preferably those who love rough-and-tumble play. If his playmates just can't sit still, he likely won't be able to resist joining them! You can also try enrolling him in an after-school program or weekend sport such as soccer, basketball or swimming.

All of the above get-moving tips are designed to convey the message to your child that being active will help him grow stronger and happier.