Parents play important role in kids' fitness

A recent government study shows that parents who are more physically active will have more lively, healthy kids

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 10:23am

When Sarah Shrimplin injured herself training for a marathon and couldn't join her son in the Beat the Banana! Charity Run on March 17, she immediately looked for a replacement, as she knew how much the race meant to six-year-old Tavez.

"It's a family tradition," says Shrimplin, 44. "Tavez wanted to run because he's participated in the race every year since he was born - in the first couple of years, of course, in a pushchair or carried on my back."

Tavez ended up doing the race with his godmother. They were among the 250 parent-child pairs who chased five-year-old Debbie Lau Yee, who was dressed as a banana, over a one-kilometre stretch of the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade.

For this year's race, organisers from the World Cancer Research Fund Hong Kong introduced the one-kilometre event to promote the importance of physical activity and a healthy diet for children.

Childhood obesity is an important health issue in Hong Kong, and is partly caused by physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle, says Ady Leung, the cancer fund's general manager. "Studies have shown that parents play a crucial role in influencing their kids to develop an active lifestyle," he says.

It seems Hong Kong parents aren't doing such a good job in that area. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) recently released the findings of a city-wide community fitness test and survey that involved more than 8,100 people, of whom about 70 per cent were children aged three to 19. In summary, Hong Kong children are getting fatter and less active, and parents are a big part of the problem.

The study, conducted between April 2011 and January last year, found that children were physically active if their parents were. But only 18 per cent of infants (three to six years) did an hour or more of outdoor activities on average each day. Only about half the infants did physical activities with their family at least once per week.

Among children (aged seven to 12), 35 per cent of fathers and 38 per cent of mothers had not done any exercise during the past year.

Only about two in five families did sports together at least once a week. Among adolescents (13 to 19 years), 48 per cent of fathers and 52 per cent of mothers did not do any exercise in the past year. Only about one in four adolescents did any physical activity with their family at least once a month.

The Shrimplins exercise together as a family every weekend. During weekdays, Sarah ensures her helper takes Tavez out to the park. "We're a very sport-orientated family," says Sarah, who plays hockey every week and regularly takes part in running events.

Tavez, a Primary One pupil at Rosaryhill School on Stubbs Road, was introduced to various sports from a young age. He participates in football, rugby, fencing and swimming. (By the way, he did beat the banana.)

Says Shrimplin: "I think it's very important to be a good role model. If you want your kids to be active, you have to be active."

Hong Kong kids are a sedentary lot. In the study, only about 8 per cent met the recommended physical activity level. So it's no surprise that overweight and obesity levels are on the rise.

Rising screen time (watching TV and movies, playing electronic games, using mobile phones and computers or web surfing) is not helping. The study found that when children's screen time increased, their level of physical activity level dropped significantly, and their body mass indices rose significantly.

One in four adolescents spend three hours or more on screen activities in an average day. Boys who do so have poorer flexibility and cardiovascular fitness than those spending less time in front of a screen.

"Parents have a significant influence, because evidence shows that habits formed in childhood carry right through to adulthood. This includes food choices as well as physical activity," says Karen Sadler, the cancer fund's development director.

Dr Gavin Sandercock, a senior lecturer in clinical physiology (cardiology) at the University of Essex in Britain, led a study published last year in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health that asked more than 4,000 British schoolchildren to rate how active they thought their parents were. The children then completed a cardiorespiratory fitness test.

The test classified a quarter of the children as "unfit" (unable to run at a medium jogging pace of 11 kilometres per hour), and this status was strongly influenced by how active they perceived their parents to be. Active parents were those perceived by their children to do two or three sessions of physical activity per week including walking, cycling, running, playing sport, or going to a gym or an exercise class.

"As parents, we don't need to be Olympic athletes to be good role models for our children," says Sandercock. "We need our children to know that we encourage and support their physical activity and, most importantly, we need our children to see us being active ourselves."

Not only are Hong Kong parents slacking when it comes to physical activity, the LCSD study also found that 36 per cent of them frequently or occasionally recommended their children reduce sporting activities for studies.

Shrimplin notices the benefits of sport on Tavez and his three-year-old brother. "It's very important for children to be active. As they get older and the burden of schooling gets heavier, they appreciate it. Exercise helps to clear your mind and makes it easier to concentrate at school."

A recent study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, by Michigan State University, shows that students in the best physical shape outscore their classmates on standardised tests and take home better grades. More than 300 students in sixth through eighth grade at a school in the state of Michigan participated in the study.

In 2012-13, the LCSD will organise about 37,800 community recreational and sporting activities for more than 2.1 million participants of different ages and abilities, according to a spokesman. These include tailor-made parent-child training programmes organised in collaboration with the National Sports Associations (NSAs).

The LCSD also has the School Sports Programme, which encourages students to try activities guided by qualified coaches. To engage young people in a fun way, a BMX (bicycle motocross) fun day and long-distance running training courses were recently introduced.

Following the new study findings, the LCSD says it will work with the Education Bureau, Department of Health and other stakeholders to provide "more comprehensive services" to encourage an active lifestyle and daily physical activity.

The LCSD will also work with relevant NSAs to improve existing family programmes and design new ones, such as badminton, social dance, hiking and sports fun days. In addition, five water sports centres under the LCSD will regularly organise different types of activities such as canoeing, windsurfing and sailing for adolescents.

While the government, media and other organisations play a role in helping children make better choices for a healthier life, Sadler says parents are the most important.

She suggests a simple way for the family to exercise together: everyone wears a pedometer to track how many steps they take daily and turn it into a fun family competition.