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Len Saunders encourages parents to lead by example for their kids with a good diet and exercise.

The holiday season is an understandable time to ease into indulgence during meals and avoidance when it comes to exercise, but parents who practice moderation can help their children do the same.

So says a fitness expert who has devoted 30-plus years to encouraging young people to get active and stay healthy.

“Parents have to lead by example,” said Len Saunders of New Jersey. “You don’t have to give up your favorite foods completely; the key is moderation.”

In addition to teaching elementary-age P.E., Saunders has developed numerous programs to interest youths in nutrition and physical fitness, including Project ACES (All Children Exercise Simultaneously), an internationally recognized event that occurs on the first Wednesday in May each year and guides millions of children from all 50 states and other countries to exercise in unison.

Saunders also has penned seven books focused on helping children become healthier, has received national recognition on several occasions for his commitment to ending childhood obesity, and serves as an American Heart Association spokesman on childhood obesity.

His work is his passion, he said, because, according to the American Heart Association, 1 in 5 children in this nation are overweight.

This reality may not only impact a child’s long-term health, but also that child’s sense of worth, said Saunders, whose recent books include “Stretch the T. Rex,” a children’s exercise picture book, and “Keeping Kids Fit,” a book for adults who want to help children adopt a healthier lifestyle.

“Many experts are now saying that this could be the first generation of children whose life expectancy could be shorter than their parents,” he said. “The rise in Type 2 diabetes (has led to the condition) no longer being called ‘adult onset’ because now so many children are getting it as well.

“Kids who struggle with their weight are often teased, which affects their self-esteem and, as a result, how they do in school.”

Because every child is different, a one-size-fits-all approach to improving health and nutrition for youths won’t work, Saunders said.

However, he offered some advice that parents of all youths can implement to help their children thrive:

  • Kids need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. This can be broken up throughout the day, with a 10-minute walk before school to the bus stop, for example, or by “commercial-izing” — Saunders’ term for exercising during commercial breaks. “Studies show that kids watch two to four hours of TV a day. If they do some calisthenics, jumping jacks or hoola hoop during commercials over a two- to four-hour period, that’s a lot.”
  • Let children help decide what’s on the menu for dinner, but give them healthful options from which to choose.
  • Explore whether your child is overeating to fill an emotional need, and if so, help him or her find a healthier way to cope with stress, loss or other issues.
  • Be encouraging and patient in helping your child make positive changes. “It’s important that parents listen and guide. Get other adults around the child involved as well, and avoid belittling. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Walk in (your children’s) shoes and find out what they need and want in how you can help them.”
  • Modify your child’s diet gradually. “Going ‘cut and dry’ doesn’t work for kids. Instead of allowing five cookies for dessert, offer three. Cut back a little each day.

Most important, treat each child as an individual when offering your support, while also modeling a better way with your own choices, Saunders said.

“The key is that we should treat everybody with respect, no matter what they look like.”

Stacy Hawkins Adams is the mom of a son and daughter ages 16 and 19. She is also a Chesterfield County-based novelist, communications professional and volunteer child advocate. Contact her at Stacy@StacyHawkinsAdams.com.

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