My kids are active and lead a healthy life. Sound familiar? If you’re like most parents, this statement is far from true. In fact most parents are challenged to provide a healthy lifestyle for their children. There are a variety of reasons for this deficit, some more impactful than others. For sure, education and economy play a big part in determining the health of our young people. If we are being honest, it is also fair to say that technology too has a part in the health and wellness of kids. Consider the Internet. At face value, it is an invaluable resource of important information and services for anyone, young or old, interested in learning. Alternatively, used to while away the hours, while splayed out on the couch; the Internet, computers, video games and smartphones, have begun to replace good old fashioned outdoor activity and worse any chance we had at instilling healthy behaviors at an early age. Surprisingly, despite the popularity of these technological distractions, most kids if given a choice, actually prefer being active. The good news is that technology, specifically the fitness wearables and apps industry, has caught up with kids and is fast closing the gap. While they might not be for everyone, trackers are a great way to get kids thinking differently about exercise and off the couch and moving again.
Amanda Centi, PhD, holds degrees in Nutritional Biochemistry and Exercise Physiology; she’s also the mother of two young boys, the oldest of whom has just started using a tracker. “I’m not completely sure of his motives at three-years-old to use the tracker. To be honest, if my mom hadn’t bought it for him, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it for him. He’s a pretty active kid to begin with, and right now he doesn’t need something to tell him to be active. In general, I think kids are active when they’re parents/caregivers are. I think what they see people doing around them really influences what they do. We exercise around my son and take him for daily walks around the neighborhood so he sees that being active is just part of our daily routine, and I think that’s what makes him want to exercise and be active most.”
Fitness trackers designed for children are fast becoming one of the most popular and effective tools for parents to help keep their kids health focused. Aside from the obvious appeal of being the “latest thing” for kids, the reason why they are responding so well to trackers is actually an old fashioned notion: kids crave structure as well as yearn for more autonomy. This seeming ambivalence is actually a symbiotic relationship between the child’s feeling of security and the subsequent confidence it gives them to make responsible choices. When a child is raised in a structured, dependable and predictable environment they feel safe and in control which in turn fosters the self-assurance to make independent choices that they (and you) can trust when change to their routine is presented or offered. Fitness trackers give kids both the daily structure as well as sense of self-reliance that they’re looking for.
With childhood obesity on the rise, the growing acceptance of trackers among kids is timely. The American Heart Association reports that today about one in three American children are overweight or obese. The prevalence of obesity in children has more than tripled from 1971 to 2011. Unsurprisingly, it is now the number one health concern among American parents. Answering this call are a number of well-known companies that sell durable and easy-to-use fitness trackers designed for kids. Many of these wearables are “gamified” wherein they contain a fitness-themed game element to appeal to kids.
For instance the LeapBand offers a series of fun and physical challenges for a child to complete while earning points to spend on a virtual pet of their choosing. The ibitz Kid Pedometer and App provides a game character avatar for children to explore an entire galaxy in a spaceship that’s actually powered by their steps. The more they walk and stay active in the real world the further their digital avatars get to explore in their spaceships. One especially innovative approach to gamified wearables is the UNICEF Kid Power Band. Instead of having the child make changes in a virtual world it lets them affect the real one. By completing a certain number of steps and other “missions” kids unlock parcels of food for UNICEF to bring to undernourished kids in developing regions of the world. The more active a child is the more they can help others. In 2015, participating students in Boston, Dallas and New York schools walked more than 500,000 miles unlocking 188,850 therapeutic food packets, enough for 1,259 children to receive a full course of potentially life-saving treatment.
Having the ability to change the world is a powerful gift to give to any child. Individual change too; knowing that what they achieve has an impact, can be the key to unlocking a world of healthy behaviors one kid at a time and, if we’re lucky a sea change in childhood obesity.