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The Final Challenge: Get off the Couch


This September, in honor of National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, the Inside Track is featuring a four-week challenge from the American Heart Association (AHA), the EmpowerMEnt Challenge. This week, the Inside Track interviewed Dr. Rani Whitfield, a Louisiana-based family physician and founder of the Hip-Hop Health Coalition, to get some more ideas on how families can “empower their movement.”

Through the first three weeks of the American Heart Association’s EmpowerMEnt Challenge, families have been encouraged to make healthy changes to what they buy, eat and drink. In Week four, it’s time to “Empower Your Movement” by trying some easy ways to add exercise to your busy day.

“Each of the goals in my opinion is fun and simple,” says Dr. Rani Whitfield. “We’re not trying to break the bank.”

The challenges this week center on ideas such as “screen down, laces up,” encouraging kids to put aside their computers or smartphones and head outside to play. Parents can use the kitchen timer to clock their kids while they test out how many of a given exercise they can do. The EmpowerMEnt challenge website lists “five ways that play can change your day” and notes that getting the family pets involved can help, too.

The American Heart Association recommends 60 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. For busy families that need to start small, just a few extra minutes of a variety of physical activities can jump-start a healthier lifestyle. The goal, as the challenge website notes, is to make exercise “fast, simple, and fit in any schedule.”

In fact, “I don’t always use the word exercise, because that can be intimidating,” Dr. Whitfield says. He notes, for example, that he and his 9-year-old daughter go out in the garden and work together, and that people might “not look at that as exercise, but you’re moving.”

It’s important to get kids moving as young as possible, he notes: “Developmentally from birth to age 5—that’s a very important time to teach young people, helping them develop motor skills.” Parents can be role models in this as in other facets of improving healthy habits. Dr. Whitfield noted that these changes are “not just for your teens and middle-schoolers but for younger children—we need to set this tone early.”

Obese children tend to make obese adults, and sedentary children become sedentary adults, Dr. Whitfield says. And, he stresses: “I really want people first of all to understand that obesity is serious. Not only can it kill you, it can disable you.”

“You either are going to have a heart attack or stroke or you can change your lifestyle.”

The key to that lifestyle change, and the theme of all four weeks of the EmpowerMEnt Challenge, is to introduce healthy habits that fit into your life instead of overwhelming it. “Many doctors will tell you to do all these things without recognizing we’ve got children and bills and stress of life,” Dr. Whitfield says. “It’s real simple—I’m all about sustainability.”

Donna Brutkoski authored this article.