The secret to helping families get healthy? Start with the kids

By Michelle Snyder

For Maria, the realization came when she went to pick her children up from a weight management summer program, prescribed by their pediatrician. She looked around, and noticed that 85 percent to 90 percent of the camp parents were overweight as well. It dawned on her: “How could I be a positive role model for my girls and ask them to eat healthier and get moving if I wasn’t myself?”

Like many of the other parents, Maria struggled with her weight, making the right nutrition choices, and getting physical activity. She had known for a long time on some level that she needed to change. But it was her children that ultimately motivated her to make that change. Her commitment to their well-being helped her make changes in her own life to become healthier.

Kicking it up with kids

There is a great opportunity for population health managers to make the whole family healthier by engaging the children first. Health and wellness programs specifically designed for children are fun, achievable, and educational. They get kids moving without making it feel like work or a chore. Many digital health programs are using gamification techniques, such as challenges and leaderboards, as well as aligning activities and behaviors with incentives and rewards to get consumers motivated and excited to participate. Making programs fun and rewarding are even more important for kids. This younger generation responds to instant gratification and thrives on the feelings of competition and accomplishment. Maria found that using a kids-focused digital health program had a big impact, even with small changes. These activities included:

  • Setting family goals for daily steps
  • Logging activity online together and tracking progress
  • Limiting screen time and encouraging outdoor play
  • Replacing juice with water or milk

Kids programs have the potential to have a clear and powerful impact in the short and long term. Research shows that the average total health expense for children treated for obesity under private insurance is more than three times that of the average health costs of all children. A similar disparity exists for children covered under Medicaid. When you factor in soft costs, like parent absenteeism at work, and consider the potential long-term costs of obese kids becoming obese adults, childhood intervention is a smart investment that pays off in the short-term and over a lifetime.

Being healthy is a family affair

There is also a less expected and greatly underrated result of children’s health and wellness programs — namely, healthier parents. Kids often get their parents involved and motivated to change health behaviors as well. Maria is a prime example of this domino effect: Her daughter started taking nightly walks, which Maria soon joined as a way to get moving more and enjoy quality time together.

We know that there is a correlation between parents with obesity and children with obesity. In fact, parent weight status is one of the strongest predictors of obesity in children. So, when we get children engaged and excited about health and wellness, we also have the potential to reach parents in need.

Just as the risks can be shared from parents to children, good habits can also spread from one generation to the next. Studies show that children of active mothers were more likely to be active than children of inactive mothers. One study found that children of physically active mothers were twice as likely to be active than children of inactive mothers. And children with two active parents were nearly six times more likely to be active than children with two inactive parents.

Research has also shown that family support is critical to maintaining levels of physical activity in childhood. At Zamzee, a physical activity intervention for children ages 8 to 14, pilot studies found children with parents who became highly engaged, whether previously physically active or not, were four times as likely to be highly engaged themselves. The evidence is clear: Getting healthy is a family affair and population health managers should take note. When implementing health and wellness programs, it’s important that not only the entire family is eligible, but there are offerings available and appropriate for all family members too.

Maria is proof. “I now have an exercise buddy,” she says proudly as she talks about her daughter’s enthusiasm for exercise and their daily walks together. “Our other two daughters watched, and now they are on board too!” The whole family has made sustained changes to their habits and is on their way to healthier lives. Maria’s story shows us that healthy habits, like the common cold, can be contagious.

Original article appeared in BenefitsPro on March 21, 2016.