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USA WEEKEND Special Report: Family Weight

The other day, as I sorted through a stack of old family photographs, I came across my class picture from kindergarten. The year was 1968, when Dippity-do and bangs were all the rage, at least in Mrs. Ballard's class at the School for Little Children. But something besides hairstyles struck me as I looked at that photo: Not a single child was overweight. If you were to look at a similar group today, chances are, there would be a few unpleasantly plump kids in the bunch.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of obese and overweight Americans is dangerously on the rise. Today, approximately 16 percent of children ages 6 to 19 fall into that category, as do a whopping 65 percent of adults. And even though the numbers vary slightly according to sex and ethnicity, no group is immune.

Being overweight is a (literally) heavy burden to bear that leads to problems both emotional and physical. Personal struggles—such as worrying about getting in and out of a theater seat or finding clothes that fit—can take their toll emotionally. And as we've all heard, being overweight increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and even certain types of cancer. But the facts bear repeating for two reasons: First, the number of overweight people is increasing with each passing generation. Second, simple lifestyle habits can reverse the trend.

Sure, your genes play a role, however the number on the scale isn't determined by DNA alone. To maintain a healthy weight, it is crucial to start healthful habits at home, early on. Childhood is when we develop the routines that follow us into our adult years. So the inactive, chubby kid of today is likely to become the inactive, chubby adult of tomorrow. Plus, the more active our kids are, the more energy we ourselves can expend chasing after them!

Excuses, Excuses

Managing a good weight involves finding the proper balance between the calories we burn (through exercise) and the calories we consume (through diet). Sounds simple, right?

We all know the health benefits of exercise. It decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancers; treats high blood pressure, high cholesterol and depression; and reduces heartburn and headaches. And it can make us look better in our swimsuits. (Just beware of placing too much emphasis on the latter. Eating disorders are on the rise in this country.)

Knowing that exercise is good for us doesn't necessarily make getting on the treadmill any easier. The No. 1 excuse? Lack of time. Many people say that they're too busy to hit the gym. Too bad being busy and being active don't have the same health benefits. Stumbling block No. 2: where to exercise. Joining a gym is expensive, and not all neighborhoods were made for running. But that does not have to stop you or your kids in your tracks. Read on to find out how discipline and creativity can help you go the distance.

Move it to Lose It

My wife and I start each day with exercise—a 2-mile jog with our dogs. That way we can't get sidetracked from exercising later on in the day. If you can't get outside or to a gym in the morning, how about popping in an exercise DVD? You can get an outstanding (and cheap) workout in the comfort of your own living room. Or, strive for bursts of activity throughout the day—a walk around the park at lunch or sit-ups before bedtime. Small amounts of activity (as little as 10 minutes, three times a day) can add up to big benefits. Getting motivated every day takes discipline, but my wife and I manage because it not only makes us feel great, but it also illustrates to our children that an active lifestyle is important. Like brushing teeth, flossing and taking showers, exercise is just another "must" for maintaining the old bod. It's an important concept they wouldn't necessarily think of themselves (so many video games, so little time) or even learn at school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 25 percent of elementary schools provide kids with daily physical education classes, and the CDC reports that just 33 percent of high school students take gym.

Living in a Land of Plenty

Once you and your family establish a fitness routine, be sure not to sabotage the results with a poor diet. It's an easy trap to fall into! Living in a land of plenty has its pluses: We're able to provide sustenance for large numbers of people in a way our forefathers couldn't. The downside? We're surrounded by food we don't have to physically work for. Way back when, people had to hunt for their food or grow it, then clean, process and cook it before consuming it. Nowadays, if I want a cookie, I could just go to the cupboard and pull out a box of Chips Ahoy!—which is precisely why I won't find one there.

In our household, we limit the number of goodies in the cabinet. Instead, we stock an abundance of low-fat snacks that we actually like to eat: cheese sticks, peanut butter, apples, grapes. That way there's plenty of good stuff to go around when the munchies strike. It may sound strict, but we still manage to satisfy our junk-food cravings. We eat snacks and cookies when we go out on the weekend. That way, they are the "treats" they were meant to be.

Chew Your Food

Like many families, ours is always on the go. My wife and I both work full time, and our children's schedules are crammed with swimming, football and baseball. It's tempting to grab food on the run. But there are two problems with this approach. For starters, the foods that are quickly available also tend to be heavy on calories and light on nutrition. Second, eating on the go teaches us to eat in a hurry, which desensitizes us. We don't listen to our bodies, which will tell us when they're satiated. Registering that we're full just takes a little time (about 20 to 30 minutes). When we rush through a meal, we gulp down a large number of calories in a short period of time, regardless of how hungry we actually are.

As often as we can, we try to have meals as a family. We eat breakfast "together," even though we're often shuffling around one another as we do so. And most nights, we sit down for dinner, which allows us to provide more balanced meals—and a running commentary of what's on our plates. Our kids will tell you they get tired of hearing about fats, proteins, carbs and omega-3 oils! It may be tiresome for them now, but it should pay off later. We are, after all, a product of our upbringing.

We learn what we live. Our generation was the first to experience pastries in a box and moving sidewalks. The consequences of our overindulgence in such things now show, but we can regain control. I don't know about you, but I want my grandkids' kindergarten class photos to look like mine, not like my kids' class pictures. That is, of course, without the Dippity-do.