Doctors encourage `Generation Xbox' to exercise

It had become a daily routine for 9-year-old Devon Brown: Get home from school, grab some pop and some chips, and head to his room for several hours worth of video games.

Baseball, basketball, football - any outdoor sports, in general - held little allure for him. It was all about video games.

Though Devon had "always been a big boy," said his mom, Leslie Brown, Devon, at 5 feet 2, was topping 160 pounds.

Unfortunately, Devon's preference for video games over baseball games is not unusual, with doctors worrying that this young "Generation Xbox" is not getting enough physical activity to keep them healthy.

And the numbers bear this out, as the prevalence of overweight children 6 to 11 has more than doubled in the past 20 years, from 7 percent in 1980 to 18.8 percent in 2004.Among adolescents 12 to 19, the rate has more than tripled, from 5 percent to 17.1 percent.

A recent study out of Ohio State University found that summer - when kids should be swimming or riding bikes or chasing lightning bugs - is the time kids gain the most weight.

It's not just the fault of TV, computers and video games, though that's a big part of it. The growth of single-parent families, as well as two-parent families in which both parents work, means parents have less time to spend on leisure activities, such as a walk to the park. Organized sports can be costly. Parents may worry about their children playing outside by themselves. And there's fast food on every corner and junk food in most kitchens.

It all adds up to put this generation of kids at risk not just for obesity, but also for poor cardiovascular fitness, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure - diseases once thought to be reserved for adults.

So what's a parent to do?

How do you pry your kid away from the computer screen, especially a kid who has no interest in sports?

Admittedly, it's not easy.

"There's nothing out there right now," said Bill Lohan, director of the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium. "If your son wants to be a football player or a soccer player or a baseball player, that's already taken care of. There are leagues. (But) there's a huge gap and we know there's a void."

The Natatorium is trying to fill that gap with its Fit Kid Experience, opening June 19. Targeted at 7- to 13-year-olds, it features fitness equipment shrunk down to kid-sized proportions. The Nat, though, is one of the few targeting the young . . . In other words, parents, it's up to you.

And maybe that's the way it should be.

"The big thing is, it starts at home," said Dr. Troy Smurawa, a sports medicine specialist at Akron Children's Hospital. "If parents are active and exercising - whether it's joining the community pool or going to the park or just doing things together at home as a family - kids are more likely to want to be involved. If children see their parents are doing it, they want to mimic their parents as role models. They'll see that you're making it a priority."

That is absolutely true, said Dr. Nilesh Shah, medical director of the Summa Center for Sports Health. Parents can't think that they can sit in front of the TV, then preach to their kids about going outside and finding something active to do.

"Kids model behavior," Shah said. "If the parents don't do anything, the kids won't do anything. The parents have to get off the couch and say, `Let's go to the park.' Or `Let's go for a hike.'"

With that as a starting point, here are some more tips:

- Limit the screen time, whether it be hand-held video games, TV or the computer.

"You have to say, `This is how many hours or how many minutes a day you get, and that's it,'" Smurawa said.

- Find an activity the child will find fun.

"I may seem silly or ridiculous or obvious, but we forget sometimes that it's got to be fun," Shah said.

Offer options, both team and individual activities - baseball, soccer, tennis, running, hiking, swimming, walking, bike riding.

"Giving them a choice makes them feel empowered," Shah said, "like, `Hey, I can do this or that,' instead of `Hey, you're playing baseball.'"

See what their friends are doing. If their friends are playing on a team, or going to the pool, or riding bikes, your child will be more likely to want to do the same thing too.

- Praise the effort.

Overweight kids may stay away from sports because they feel they're not as good as the other players. They may be slower. They may not be as skilled. So don't expect them to walk onto the playing field and become the MVP.

"Praise and support the initiative," Shah said. "Say, `Great job out there,' not `Oh, you need to make that play.' Tell them, `Next time you'll get it,' or `We'll practice on that when we get home.'"

For any kids under 13, the emphasis should be on fun and skills development, not winning, Smurawa said. The majority of kids aren't high-level, skilled athletes. Focusing too much on competitiveness will simply drive them away.

Michael Irby, who runs the Barberton Health District's Fit Kids program, has seen kids who showed no interest in sports change their minds after trying sports during the after-school program.

"We've got kids who didn't play sports at all," he said, "kids who weren't that good but since they started getting active, they at least go and try out for teams."

It's a simple matter of self-esteem, Shah said. If the kids find out they can actually do something that they once thought they couldn't do - thanks to a nonthreatening, noncompetitive environment - they'll be more likely to keep at it.

- Reward the effort.

Make challenges for the child to meet, Irby suggests. Challenge them to a contest, seeing who can log more steps on the pedometer for a given week or who can reach 10,000 steps first. If they win, reward them with a trip to the mall or a movie or a night at the roller skating rink. Just don't reward them with food.

- Listen to your child.

Six-year-old Carsen Everly got the chance to be among the first to test the Natatorium's Fit Kid Experience. He loved it so much, he wanted to go back the next day. Since it's not open yet, he couldn't, but he will once it opens later this month, said his mom, Haylee Everly.

"This is something that needed to come," she said of the kid-based fitness room. "It will definitely be a great benefit for a lot of people."

Karyn Petty, the natatorium's fitness director, was recently stopped by a mother who was nearly in tears because her 9-year-old son weighs more than 100 pounds and is not interested in sports activities.

"She was worried sick about where he was headed," Lohan said. "She was saying, `I need to get my son in here as soon as you open.'"

While there's a need for more programs like the Natatorium's, the best approach may be the one taken by the Brown family.

Leslie Brown said that Devon left behind the video games after he decided he wanted to change the way he looked.

After a checkup with the pediatrician, Devon said, "I'm concerned about my weight. I don't like the way I look." The doctor referred them to the Akron Children's Hospital's Future Fitness program, which taught him about the importance of activity and nutrition.

And with that, the after-school routine changed. He no longer disappears into his room playing video games four hours straight. He no longer munches on junk food, because it's been banned from the house.

"We started going to the park after work, instead of coming to the house. We just go and walk and play football. He loves to play basketball with his dad," his mom said. "Basically, he's doing the things I did as a child - he's just started playing."

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