Writer & Photographer / Alicia Wettrick MSN, FNP-BC
Does this sound familiar? Summer break is here! I walk into my kitchen and there sit three kids with eyes fixated on their Kindle Fire, iPad or Nintendo DSi. There is an accumulated dust silhouette of each child’s body because they have not moved from the same spot for, say, three hours. It is tempting just to pass by because hey, they are not fighting or making a mess and I would love to get more chores done. But as a health professional who is always promoting the importance of exercise, I place the chores on the back burner and get the kids outside. Yes, they do complain, moan, and groan, but Mom knows best and out they all go.
Now we all know exercise can help your child achieve and maintain a healthy weight. It can help with strengthening the heart, lungs, muscles, and bones. However, did you realize that physical activity helps with your child’s cognitive functioning? One of my favorite books, Brain Rules, written by John Medina, discusses how vital exercise is for the brain. Studies have shown that a lifetime of exercise leads to better cognitive functioning than a sedentary lifestyle. People who engage in regular physical activity outperform sedentary people in long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving and intelligence tasks. This is true for children, as well. When researchers compared groups of children who engaged in physical activity, such as gym class, in contrast to no physical activity, across the board, physical education helped the children perform better in class and have higher test scores.
Why does exercise makes such a difference in the brain’s function? There is a whole complicated molecular explanation for this, but generally exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which stimulates new capillary growth. This allows more brain cells access to nutrients the brain needs. In turn, this stimulates brain growth factors that develop more neuron cells and keeps existing cells young and healthy. Pretty exciting: all this occurs with a simple jog around the block.
When you tell your kids that getting exercise will help their brain perform better and smarter, they get excited about their newfound potential. Getting kids to stay active can be just as challenging during the summer break as when they were in school. Going to the pool or being in a summer sport camp or league is a wonderful way to incorporate exercise. Check out the Greenwood Parks & Recreation website, bit.ly/GW_Parks. They offer classes such as Zumba for kids, Taekwondo, dance, tumbling and youth sport leagues at the Greenwood Community Center for a reasonable price. Although, the cost can add up, so a local Greenwood Park is a great quick go-to free fun activity that will get your kids moving.
Two of my kids’ favorites are Freedom Park and Westside Park. Westside Park is beautiful and beholds many gems. Located off West Main Street is a charming valley-like park with a winding creek and many trees. The amenities they have are a picnic shelter, grills, playground equipment (great for ages three and up), baseball diamond, tennis courts, restrooms and wooded bike/walking nature trail. There is an open space to start a kickball or football game. Many mature trees provide shade for hot summer days.
Freedom Park is located off Averitt Road and Stop 18. When you enter this park, you are greeted with a row of young trees leading to several exciting and unique activities. First, there is a towering castle-like playground for children ages five to twelve. My four-year-old cannot resist, so it is a little unnerving watching him climb so high. Plan to be your younger child’s spotter. The challenging obstacles and height are perfect for my nine- and twelve-year-old girls. It was exhilarating for them to be so high.
A much more scaled-down playground for younger children is available, as well. The huge grassy hill (used as a popular sledding hill) is also a good physical challenge for kids and parents to climb in the summer. Try running up and down the hill a couple of times: you will feel the burn! When you’re on top of the hill, you can get a good look at the Frisbee golf course, tennis courts, basketball court, football/soccer field, and paved walking trail. There is even a special obstacle dog park for your furry best friend. Two picnic shelters and bathroom facilities are available. This is a new park with a vast, open feeling. There are many young trees; they will look beautiful when fully grown. This will be an ideal place for Greenwood to host their future water park with proposed construction starting in the summer of 2014.
Independence Park, off Morgantown Road in White River Township, is the only park on the Southside that is fully equipped for individuals with disabilities, including a ¾-mile asphalt wheelchair trail, a wheelchair basketball court, and a sound and sensory playground for autistic children.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that a typical American child or adolescent spends an average 7.5 hours a day engaging in watching TV, movies, computers, video games, and cell phones. The rate of childhood and adolescent obesity is 17 percent in the United States, which has tripled from a generation ago.
Instilling the importance of exercise early in your child’s life will lead to multiple, lasting benefits. So, help your child develop good exercising habits and you will see an increase not only in physical health, but an improved sense of well-being, confidence, focus, and brain function.