Children's Health, Food as Medicine, Lifestyle Medicine

Doctor’s Orders: A Checklist to Keep Your 5-13 Year-Old Healthy (and Happy)

Did you know that over 90% of Canadian kids over the age of five don’t get their recommended daily dose of physical activity? And almost a third of our kids are sleep-deprived? As a doctor, it’s my job to stay up to date on recommendations for children’s health and safety, but as a parent, I know that following guidelines is much easier said than done.

The first step in making healthy choices and changes in your child’s life is knowing what the experts advise and why. Once you’ve identified where changes need to be made, you get to the toughest part — how. What follows are some practical tips. Then, lean on friends, family, teachers, and your doctor to get back on the right track to raising your child to be his or her healthiest and happiest self. It’s good for the whole family.

1. Get them moving! Your child should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily to optimize their physical and mental health. This includes plenty of aerobic activity — think tennis, dancing, or a family soccer match. Three days a week, be sure to include some muscle and bone strengthening activity, like running and swinging on the playset. In addition, guidelines tell us that children should also have “several hours” daily of unstructured light physical activity: get outdoors, go to the park, use your imaginations together, walk or ride a bike to school, find local activities that they enjoy, and get the entire family involved. See you at Palmer Park!

2. Send them to bed. Kids aged 5 to 17 require nine to eleven hours of uninterrupted sleep, with consistent sleep and wake times. Without it, they can have trouble with concentration and behaviour at home and school, feel too tired to be active, and they’re more likely to get sick. (And remember, when they get sick, you’re often next!). To set up a bedtime routine, figure out what time your kids need to wake in the morning, and work backwards. Gradually move toward that to-bed time. Limit screen time before sleep and leave plenty of time to relax in the evening with a warm bath, snuggles, and stories.

3. Let them eat greens (and fish). Follow Canada’s food guide and ensure kids in this age group eat 5-6 servings of fruit and vegetables daily, as well as healthy grains and proteins. Dump the juice (your dentist will love you for this, too) which serves up empty calories and too much sugar. Serve 2 servings per week of low-mercury fish (fish higher up in the food chain have more mercury, such as swordfish and “white” albacore tuna). Fish helps with heart, brain and eye health, and ensures they get their recommended vitamin D intake for the week. Make healthy eating a (fun!) habit and involve your children in cooking nutritious meals.

4. Unplug. Limit your child’s recreational screen time to no more than 2 hours per day. Avoid having them sit for extended periods of time. If you’re following tip #1, there won’t be time for more lazing about than this! When your children are tuned in, keep a watchful eye and teach them about internet safety: keep computers in common areas, set parental controls, teach about both the magic and dangers of the internet, show genuine interest in what they’re doing to keep them communicating with you.

5. Be sunsafe. And bugsafe. Your child’s sensitive skin is prone to burns. In addition to being painful, sunburns put them at risk of future sun damage, including skin cancer. Seek shade, cover up and use an approved sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Bug-spray not only prevents itchy, annoying mosquito bites but also helps prevent dangerous illnesses such as Lyme and West Nile Virus.

6. Follow the golden rule. Use consistent, positive discipline. The terrible twos and terrible teenage years can be especially difficult times, but you’re not alone. Seek advice from family and friends, or turn to the experts: my most-recommended read on the subject: Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

7. Involve the village. Keep up-to-date on your child’s regular appointments. Get a calendar of recommended visits from your MD, dentist and eye doctor. Family doctors perform healthy child checks every 1-2 years, and eye exams are recommended annually in this age group (provincial plans typically foot the bill for kids). Frequency of visits to the dentist will depend on your child’s oral health. To limit trips: avoid juice and give water to quench thirst between meals, remind your little ones to brush twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste and teach them to floss.

8. Don’t forget about mental health. Ask about school. A favourite dinnertime question at my house is “What was the best part of your day, and the worst part of your day?” — the answers might surprise you. Look out for bullying, body image concerns, signs of depression and anxiety, and substance abuse. Consider joining your school’s PTA to stay in the loop with teachers, administrators and other parents — work together to keep everyone’s children safe. Get to know your child’s friends.

Parenting is a tough job, but also the most rewarding one of all. Following the above guidelines can help keep you and your child happy, healthy and safe through their school-aged years.

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