With the White House's Let's Move campaign, the frequent media coverage of childhood obesity and the rise in interest in organic foods and healthy living, what's an important key to healthy children?

The answer is close to home.

Parents are essential to a child's healthy lifestyle, according to Rhonda Richardson, Northern Virginia Healthy Kids Coalition (NVHKC) program coordinator.

"It's really important that [parents] model the type of behavior we want our children to have," she says.

Parents, health departments, PE teachers and other stakeholders across Northern Virginia, in partnership with Inova Health Systems, created the NVHKC out of concern over the growing childhood obesity rate in Northern Virginia. NVHKC believes parents are the key to combatting childhood obesity rates, NVHKC Steering Committee co-chair Margaret Goldberger says.

The coalition reaches out to parents at various community events, providing literature and accessible steps for setting a healthy example for their family, she says.

The coalition's main tool is the 9-5-2-1-0 for health (9 hours of sleep; 5 servings of fruits and vegetables; 2 hours of screen time; 1 hour of physical activity; 0 sugary beverages). Goldberger says that rather than trying to completely overhaul a family's habits all at once, she encourages parents to pick just one item on that spectrum to start.

"Children are always watching us," she says. "It's way more important what we do than what we say."

Role Modeling Healthy Choices

Kids have a front row view of their moms exercising and choosing health in Kathy Corbey's MommyBootcamp classes.

"Our goal is to empower these women to feel good about themselves and to be healthy, to get back to the weight they want to be or to even reach goals they never thought they could," Corbey says.

Mommy Bootcamp offers classes from strength training to Zumba to cardio circuits. Since moms can bring their children to class, they don't worry about leaving a crying child at a gym daycare. "The kids enjoy going, which makes it easier for moms to go," she says.

The kids not only enjoy watching their moms exercise, but they also get in on the action. Corby says, "The kids think it's their class, too. The kids are doing jumps and squats."

Elizabeth Lucca, a Mommy Bootcamp instructor, says her older son looks forward to going to the classes, and exercise is a part of their daily routine. "He totally gets it. He actually likes to go to exercise class. He likes to try to race me when we do our sprints. He likes to run fast, and he does try to be faster than mommy, which he's not yet but one day he will be."

Instilling Lifelong Habits

Corbey says the years her children spent watching her and participating in Mommy Bootcamp classes showed her children how exercise is fun, not a punishment or a negative experience.

"I think it has given them a positive attitude toward exercise. I think so often kids think 'Oh, at PE class they made us do pushups,' they just see that I do this, and I enjoy this."

With work and family responsibilities, Corbey says, time can be a mom's biggest obstacle to making time for fitness. "Think of it as, "It's just an hour : I'm going to set aside what's going on at home,'" she says.

Corbey says she hopes the example she sets for her children will inspire them to make fitness a part of their everyday lives, long after childhood.

For moms just getting into exercise, Corbey recommends trying different types of classes to find something that works for them.

"They need to know it's never too late to start," she says. "They need to keep trying until they find something that fits."

Richardson says parents who make health a family affair are more likely to create habits that stick. "Involve the family as far as choosing activities to do. If we are not modeling walking or biking or hiking, but we're expecting our children to do that, most likely they're going to see that we're sitting in front of the TV."

Since not all children enjoy organized sports, Richardson encourages parents to think outside the box when coming up with activities for their children.

"I usually like to stay away from the word exercise and say, 'What fun activity do you like to do that keeps your body moving?'"

Goldberger says parents need to be that example for their children, and it's easy to start small with family meal planning, evening walks or playing in the backyard.

"Really, what we're going for with everything we're doing here is establishing lifelong habits."


Sarah Rosemary Bagley is a writer and blogger (sarahrosemary.com) living in Vienna with her toddler, husband and garbage-eating dog.