Child body image: exercising together

Child body image: exercising together

This summer the government recommended that all school children should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons, this followed the recent All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) ‘Reflections on body image’ report. Key discoveries included:

  • Over 30% of girls as young as five worry about how they look, fear becoming fat and indulge in binge eating or dieting
  • Children often reflect their parents’ own body-related anxieties
  • Appearance is the greatest cause of bullying in schools
  • More than half the public has a negative body image
  • Cosmetic surgery rates have increased by nearly 20% since 2008
  • Media images of unrealistic bodies are part of the problem – digital manipulation of images exacerbates the reality gap
  • 1.6 million people in the UK have eating disorders
  • Dieting is related to eating disorders and, rather than focusing on weight, regular exercise is more likely to yield improvements in health

Despite these sensitive issues however, we also need to address the fact that “obesity is one of the most serious health epidemics facing our society today, with one in three children currently overweight or obese in the UK” (MEND). But how do we ensure that our children aren’t unduly obsessed with their body image whilst ensuring they have a healthy attitude to food and activity?

Sportsshoes asked several experts in the field for their advice on the best way to approach this challenging subject:

Education on food

Margarita Bennett, a fitness instructor who works with MEND, suggests that we need to think more about our relationship with food and how it fits into family life, rather than blame the media. She says that role models for young women do need to be looked at but we need to recognise that the country is at extreme ends of the same scale; obsession with our looks and an obesity epidemic.

She says “We need to find the middle ground. I am not a believer of diets; they don’t work long term and are unrealistic. Building self esteem is a good idea but what our children do need is education on nutrition, label reading (knowing what is in your food) and home economics (cooking classes). If this was provided in all the schools and involved the parents, our eating habits would dramatically change. Jamie Oliver had the right idea with reforming school dinners but it needs to be bigger or at least more inclusive.”

She also points out that in western culture our lives have become so busy we have lost the habit of cooking. Years ago our mothers and grandmothers would teach us how to cook from scratch but now, due to time, money and custom, we eat ready meals, low fat food and takeaways. Growing up with this means you do the same as an adult and teach your children bad habits.

Exercise should not be a trial

Sue Thomason, author of beautifulmagazine.com and contributor to the APPG report, says “forcing kids into exercise for weight loss goals instead of helping them to focus on the joy of movement and games interferes with their motivation to move”. She recommends integrating activities like bike rides, swims and walks into your family’s life and doing exciting things like playing with the dog, metal detecting and building bonfires.

Personal trainer, Neilon Pitamber, agrees that you don’t necessarily need to encourage your children to take up high-impact sports to increase their exercise; hobbies like dancing, kite-flying and martial arts can increase your children’s quality of life and sense of self esteem which allows them to get in touch with which values are important to them. He says “I think that Physical Education at school could be improved. PE teachers should include more coaching and not focus so much on competition. Only giving attention to pupils who make the team and ignoring everyone else can be damaging”.

Child body image: kids shouldn't be put off healthy food...

Child body image: kids shouldn’t be put off healthy food…

Dieting is counter-productive

Sue insists that there is no evidence that dieting helps people to lose weight and Neilon agrees, saying “the diet industry has a lot to answer for. In my opinion it should be banned completely, it has a 95-98% failure rate. How on earth is a whole industry built around this awful outcome? It’s all about good habits for a good life – not faddy diets!”

Neilon also insists that low-fat culture is contributing to obesity. He says “people are encouraged to eat processed foods with extra added sugar which is used to replace the taste of the fat. This is damaging in 3 main ways – the food is less satisfying, it’s also seen as a safe option, so more is eaten, and it’s higher in refined carbohydrates which means it gets instantly turned to fat and impacts insulin, eventually leading to metabolic syndrome or diabetes.”

Media influence

It is clear that there is a big market for body image insecurity. Celebrities are always being targeted for being too-fat or too-thin. Airbrushed images of beauty set impossible standards and children don’t always realise that models don’t look that way in real life. It is important to have open conversations with your children on how advertisers and the media manipulate the messages they receive. Also, as a parent, remember that your attitude to your own body will be reflected in your children’s attitude to theirs. This parent pack on body image gives some useful tips on how to promote self-esteem.

Taking responsibility

The increasing frequency of conditions such as obesity, self-esteem, body dysmorphic disorder, bulimia and anorexia are troubling and many factors above contribute to these. Sports, health and fitness providers, clubs and businesses should take responsibility for the images and marketing messages they use – ensuring that they consider all body-types and appeal to those who may be reluctant to engage in sports and fitness because of body image concerns.

Likewise, as parents you play a direct role in shaping the way your children feel about food, exercise and self image. Following the guidelines below will mean that you have a happy, healthy child with a strong sense of wellbeing:

  • Don’t ban certain foods – it will encourage them to crave the forbidden
  • Knowledge is power, educate yourself and your children on nutrition
  • Ensure their diet includes vegetables, fruit and plenty of water
  • Give your children smaller portions than yourself
  • Set a good example by sitting down at the table as a family to eat
  • Encourage a lively active lifestyle
  • Promote self-confidence and a realistic outlook on simulated media

This article was researched by Sportsshoes.

Neilon Pitamber is a qualified Personal Trainer based in Brighton with an holistic and integrated approach to fitness and wellbeing. He ran the London Marathon 2011 in barefoot trainers and is again for London Marathon 2012.

Margarita Bennett is a fitness Instructor for The Guild of Pregnancy and Postnatal Exercise Instructors, she has worked for MEND and is passionate about helping women of all ages enjoy fitness while, improving their posture and lessening the impact that different stages in life have on them.

Sue Thomason is the author of www.beautifulmagazine.co.uk. She helped to research and gather information for the APPG report and is also a contributor of evidence.