How do you keep your little ones healthy?

The Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) promotes the health and wellness of all South Africans. One of their new areas of interest is how parents can promote the health of their kids. They are focusing particularly on physical activity, screen time and sleep. Part of their research is asking parents just like you and me how we keep our little ones healthy.

Here are some great guidelines on how to keep your little ones healthy from SSISA

Most would agree that investing in the youth means investing in the future. Part of this investment involves their health and well-being, which if maximised, can help kids reach their full potential. Healthy nutrition is a key component of health and well-being for children and adolescents. But it goes hand in hand with other healthy behaviours, including physical activity, screen time and sleep.

little ones healthy apple

Moving more

Physical activity plays a vital role in children’s health and well-being. There are a wide range of benefits for their physical health. It helps to maintain a healthy weight and reduce risk for diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It’s also great for their mental health. Kids who are more physically active have been shown to have better self-esteem; less stress, anxiety and depression; and improved cognitive and academic outcomes.

Physical activity is not just sport and physical education at school. It includes other activities like walking (for example, to school, or on a family outing) and active play. Research consistently shows that children who spend more time outdoors are more physically active. So whenever possible, encourage kids to be out rather than in. The evidence also shows that children who are more active when they are young, stay active through childhood and into adolescence, and often adulthood as well. It is important to get kids active early, so they can enjoy the benefits later in life as well.

The lure of the screen

In contrast to the benefits of physical activity, lots of time in front of screens has been shown to have a number of negative consequences for kids, which is a sobering thought in this era of ubiquitous screen-based technology. Research shows that kids who spend more time on screens will be more likely to be overweight, and have unhealthy eating behaviours, such as eating less fruit and vegetables, consuming more fast food and fizzy drinks, and skipping breakfast.

Kids with higher levels of screen time are also more likely to score more poorly in things related to their cognitive development and academic performance. This includes attention, maths scores, reading and language comprehension.

High screen time is also associated with a wide range of unpleasant mental health outcomes amongst children and adolescents: increased anxiety, social dysfunction and depression; low self-esteem; school disconnectedness; unfavourable behavioural conduct; and difficulties connecting with parents and peers.

One study even showed that kids who, after spending only 5 days away from all forms of screens, were better able to read facial expressions than kids who had 5 days of their usual exposure to screens at school and at home.

Getting enough z’s

The importance of sleep for the health and well-being of kids is becoming an increasingly hot topic in research. It has been shown to be associated with healthier weight, better emotional regulation, academic achievement, and improved quality of life for youth.

little ones healthy sleep

Lack of sleep is particularly detrimental to adolescents. Inadequate sleep in this age group is linked to higher levels of depression, anxiety and pain. Also low self-esteem, social support and life satisfaction; decreased academic achievement; a greater chance of engaging in future risky behaviour; as well as attention difficulties, withdrawal, tiredness, and aggression.

Screen time is a sleep thief – it not only takes up sleep time, but it also displaces behaviours that help with sleep, such as physical activity, and it exposes kids to artificial light that negatively affects their body’s sleep system.

SSISA recommends

School-going children should be getting at least 1 hour of physical activity every day in order to realise these benefits. This should include activity that is intense enough to get them to sweat and breathe hard, although activity of a lighter intensity is also good for them if it means less time sitting. Younger children (3-6 years) should be active for at least 3 hours per day, and this can be activity of any intensity.

little ones healthy exercise

The general limit for daily screen time is not more than 2 hours per day for school-going children, while some recommend not more than 1 hour for preschool children. For children under 2 years, the advice is NO screen time at all. Similar to physical activity, screen time behaviours tend to stick from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. So limiting these behaviours from an early age is essential.

While there are a number of different recommendations for kids’ sleep, the guidelines are generally around 10-13 hours of sleep per night for 3-6 year olds, 9-11 hours for 6-13 year olds, and 8-10 hours for 14-17 year olds.

Healthy behaviours, along with a healthy diet, help to set kids up for a future in which they are physically and mentally healthy, emotionally and socially adjusted, and prepared to do well at school. Sounds like a bright future, don’t you think?

You can find out more about SSISA here and if you have any questions about what they offer for kids, email kids@ssisa.com.

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