"Although any support parents can give is good, we found children were more likely to meet guidelines if parents were giving active, engaged support," said study author Dr. Heather Manson.
That means taking your child to the park for play, making healthy food options readily available and restricting screen time, said Manson, chief of health promotion, chronic disease and injury prevention at Public Health Ontario in Canada.
In the United States and Canada, about one in three children is overweight or obese, putting them at risk of serious health problems. Doctors now know that healthy living involves not only moving around more, but sitting less -- engaging in fewer sedentary behaviors like watching TV or going online, the researchers said.
For this new study, the researchers conducted a telephone survey of more than 3,200 parents with at least one child under age 18 in Ontario. Parents were asked about behaviors related to national guidelines for physical activity, healthy eating and appropriate TV/screen time.
In Canada, kids aged 5 to 17 are advised to get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. Depending on age and gender, the guidelines recommend eating 4 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. As for recreational screen time, two hours max is the recommendation.
The researchers found that parents who took their kids to places where they could be physically active, such as playgrounds and sports programs, were twice as likely to report their kids met exercise guidelines as those who didn't.
Parents who participated in the activities with their kids were 35 percent more likely to report their children met the guidelines, compared to those who did not.
Also, parents who made raw fruit and vegetables available between meals were nearly five times as likely to report their kids met those nutrition guidelines, the study found.
Insisting on family meals and less TV viewing helped, too.
Parents who ate at home but away from the TV were 67 percent more likely to say their kids ate enough fruits and vegetables. And parents who enforced rules on TV, tablets and other electronic devices were twice as likely to report their kids followed screen guidelines.
"All these things take some parental effort," Manson said, but she added the payoff is worth it.
The findings echo what Stephanie Quirantes, a community dietitian, finds in her programs at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami. One, called Healthy Chicas, enrolls overweight Hispanic teens and their mothers. "We want the moms to learn about exercise and nutrition," Quirantes said.
Role modeling works, she noted.
"It is not enough to say, 'Do it,' " Quirantes said. When the teens see their mothers following healthier habits, it motivates them, too.
Findings suggest "we're moving in the right direction with what we are doing," Quirantes said.
Having cut-up carrots and fruits in containers in the refrigerator helps.
"Have the snacks ready to go," she said, so kids can grab them on their way to sports practice or after-school activities. "Kids aren't going to cut up fruit," she said.
Quirantes said the benefits work both ways. Mothers participating with their daughters often improve their own health habits, she noted.
The study was recently published in BMC Public Health.
For tips on raising healthy kids, visit Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
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