For one in five teenagers, back-to-school anticipation can be overshadowed by obesity. Studies have shown that depression, limited participation in school activities and bullying are more likely to be part of the school day for an obese child than for kids with a normal body weight.
Helping overweight teens face middle and high school can also be a hard lesson in coping for frustrated parents. If you are looking for ways to help your teen get healthy, experts say you have more power than you think. Commitment to three strategies that encourage good nutrition, exercise and a more positive outlook can help put your teen on the path to fitness.
Time really is of the essence, said Andrew Forster, M.D. , an internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care  who focuses on wellness and prevention. The teenage years present a short window of opportunity to reverse a potentially dangerous health condition.
“Obesity has been shown to persist. If someone has trouble with obesity and depression, that can carry over into adulthood,” Dr. Forster said. “They will usually remain overweight if they’re overweight as an adolescent.”
Obesity is linked to diabetes, heart disease and a long list of other health conditions. According to the most recent national estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention, 20.5 percent of young people from 12 to 19 years of age are obese and 17.7 percent of children aged 6 to 11.
“Teens have a higher rate of depression and that in itself may foster poor eating habits and lack of exercise,” Dr. Forster said. “That adds to the weight problem.”
So does a lack of physical activity, which decreases after elementary school when physical education may not be mandatory. The job of motivating young people to stay fit is increasingly the job of parents.
1. Don’t Talk About It
Motivation should not include comments about the child’s weight. While parents may be tempted to talk to their teenagers about the importance of losing weight, experts say resist the temptation. Research studies have shown that talking about weight and dieting ‒ even your own weight issues ‒ sends the wrong message.
A new study published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders found that even well-meaning comments can be a predictor of future eating problems in girls. Kids can also start to associate their value as a person with the number on the scale, which can lead to eating disorders.
“When grownups say I’m going to put you on a diet, because you’re too big, eating healthier has a negative connotation. They feel they have to eat terrible tasting foods because they have to lose weight,” Dr. Forster said. “Kids definitely respond better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement.”
2. Show, Don’t Tell
Rather than talking about weight, parents should model good nutrition and exercise habits.
“Parents have to set the example because kids are like ducklings. They like to do whatever their parents do,” he said. “If they see their parents eating healthier food, they will opt for those foods.”
Just removing sugary drinks and high calorie snacks can jump-start weight loss for kids.
“The parents control what’s in the house. The kids are not the ones doing the grocery shopping at least not by themselves,” Dr. Forster said. “If what’s being bought is sugary drinks and high calorie snacks, that’s not the right way to teach someone to eat healthy.”
The child who is overweight cannot be singled out by parents for a diet makeover.
“Everybody has to eat healthy,” he said, “not the kid gets broccoli and everyone else gets mac and cheese. No kid is going to accept that.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the 5210 rule:
- 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day
- 2 hours of screen time or less
- 1 hour of exercise or active play
- 0 sugary drinks
Taking away all treats will be viewed as a punishment, Dr. Forster said. A good rule could be reserving desserts for the weekend.
3. Make Fitness Fun
Pokémon Go may be getting more young people outside, Dr. Forster said, but it is not a substitute for exercise. However, starting off with a full hour of activity a day may be too much. A visit to your child’s physician for a complete physical examination will help you determine how much exercise is enough. The doctor may also refer you to a nutritionist — and/or a fitness trainer — depending on your child’s condition. These tips may also motivate teens to move:
- Help teens choose exercise they enjoy. Teens who are intimidated by team sports might like walking, swimming or biking.
- Exercise as a family.
- Make exercise about the ultimate goals of feeling good and being healthy rather than weight loss.
“If it’s a chore then they’re not going to stick with it,” he said, “and they’re going to hate you for it.”