Building healthy routines in the new school year
Whether your kids' classroom will be remote, in-person or a hybrid of the two this fall, the Wellness & Weight Management Clinic team at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital encourages families to treat the new school year as an opportunity to push the reset button and prioritize daily structure, sleep, physical activity and nutrition.
Dr. Helen Binns, medical director of the Wellness & Weight Management Clinic, has seen a rise in kids eating ultra-processed, calorie-dense comfort foods while spending less time engaging in physical activity due to canceled sports and activities.
"Unfortunately, when we're not active, muscle mass diminishes fairly quickly," Binns says. "The good news is that we have more time to plan a structured routine to help us cope with unpredictability and build healthy habits for the whole family."
First priority: reclaim a full night's sleep. A full night's sleep supports learning and memory, strengthens immunity and decreases cravings for unhealthy foods. Dr. Kavitha Selvaraj recommends consistent sleep and wake times while also encouraging the whole family to place their devices in charging stations by early evening. "The blue light from our screens tricks the brain into thinking it is daytime," she says. "Shutting devices down an hour or two before bed allows the sleepy hormone melatonin to signal drowsiness on schedule."
Plan a daily routine. A predictable daily routine helps kids feel calm and confident, alleviating COVID-19 related anxiety and grazing. Selvaraj suggests having a family meeting to brainstorm a master list of after-school activities such as art, music, cooking, sports or family walks.
"Kids can decorate the schedule before posting in a prominent place," Selvaraj says. "Parents should speak with their child's pediatrician with any mental health and wellness concerns."
Schedule regular, balanced meals. Meal skipping and plates filled with starchy, processed foods are also a setup for all-day grazing. "Schedule three balanced meals that combine lean protein and plant-based fibers," advises Julie Adams, a registered dietitian. Think lean meats, low-sugar yogurts, fish, nut butters or beans accompanied by colorful, non-starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains. In addition to fueling normal growth and development, this avoids the surge in hunger hormones that trigger snack-attacks.
Also try to close the kitchen by 8 p.m. "Shifts in late-day metabolism impair nutrient utilization, making it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight," Adams says.
Do something active every day. Find something your kids enjoy doing. Four, 15-minute study breaks walking, jogging or biking around the block are as beneficial as an hour of continuous activity. For beginners, Selvaraj says 10 minutes of activity per day is better than 60 minutes once a week "because it helps build a daily movement habit."
Commit to whole family changes. Overall, kids who make lifestyle changes alongside their parents and siblings have the best shot at success. The Wellness & Weight Management team supports patients in identifying sleep, activity and nutrition goals while encouraging the whole family to join in. This can be a time to bond, discover, rest and take care of ourselves. Find the small wins and make the best of the situation given to us.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital.