Children’s book writer Dr. Seuss wrote, “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
In children’s health, we have a lot of questions about what has gone wrong. Why are one in three kids considered overweight or obese? How did cancer and suicide become two of the leading causes of death for kids between the ages of five and 14, according to the CDC?
While we could ask more questions about how this happened, the potential solutions are simple. In fact, many answers can be found in the Blue Zones, areas in the world where people live long, happy lives. Advice for adult from the Blue Zones applies to kids, too.
One of the main principles in Blue Zones is to move naturally each day. People who live in Blue Zones don’t spend hours at the gym or in exercise classes, they just move throughout the day. If we look back just one or two generations, most people walked to school as kids.
Today, parents are afraid to let children walk anywhere unsupervised but kids are losing a movement practice that could happen at least five days a week. Walking or riding a bike to school or to after-school activities is a great way to begin.
Some communities are creating change by organizing a Walking School Bus, which is when a groups of kids walk to school together. Not only does this help kids move more, but it helps build community and lessen feelings of isolation.
Americans have a major sitting habit that is not supportive for longevity. Most of us sit for almost 10 hours a day—including kids sitting at desks. Research has found that for each hour you sit, you shave about 22 minutes from your life expectancy. Additionally, one UCLA study found that American kids spend about 90 percent of their leisure time at home, often in front of a screen.
In Blue Zones people move throughout their day in walks to the market, gardening outside, cleaning the house, or even just getting up to make tea. These same household practices can become part of children’s lives, too. Invite your kids to help you make meals or get them involved in outdoor activities like raking leaves, shoveling snow, or gardening.
Many kids can be picky eaters or opt for fast foods instead of more nutritious plant-based foods. Meals in Blue Zones are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, and occasionally fresh, locally raised meat.
To get kids on board with this style of eating, you may have to meet them where they are. For instance, start with textures that kids are familiar with. If your young kids like soft foods then steam and puree broccoli when you introduce it to them. If they prefer crunchy foods, then try raw celery and carrots.
Another trick is to introduce new foods to kids when they are hungry or as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal. They are more likely to try something new when they have an empty belly.
Or you can try another approach. Capitalize on kids’ screen time with shows and media that celebrate eating vegetables like Super Sprowtz, which uses “the educational power of new media to make learning about nutrition and wellness fun.” In collaboration with Cornell University, Super Sprowtz added colorful artwork and interactive superheroes to school lunchrooms and increased the students' visits to the salad bar by 250 percent.
From a Blue Zones perspective, eating meals in community, whether as a family at night or with other kids at school, has a profound impact on long-term eating habits. People of any age who gather for a meal tend to eat slowly, which is better for digestion and absorbing nutrients.
People in Blue Zones aren’t ones to wear watches or schedule events in their Google calendars. They live with the seasons, take lots of naps, and spend the afternoons drinking tea or playing cards. While this lifestyle isn’t possible everywhere, it is possible to cut back some commitments throughout the week.
Many kids’ lives are as over-scheduled as their parents’. They run from school to sports practice to piano lessons and more. Take a nod from the Blue Zones and have at least one day a week that is free of plans. Let kids play in the backyard or make forts in the living room. Take time to read books or make art. When kids learn the importance of downtime at an early age, they will know how to deal with stress and the pitfalls of chronic busyness when they get older.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies