If you're thinking summer is a good time for kids to lose weight, get fit or just gain an athletic edge in sports, you may be right.
But only, experts say, if you get a solid plan together and put it in motion.
Sure, students deserve a vacation, a rest from the stress of school. But too much unstructured time can easily lead to lazy days in front of the TV, snacking on junk food, sabotaging the best of intentions.
And parents, here's the kicker: You need to be part of the plan, particularly if your child wants to lose weight.
"The best predictor of long-term success is to have the parents on board. The whole family needs to participate if kids are to lose weight and keep it off," said Michael Bishop, clinical psychologist and executive director of Wellspring Camps, a national chain of residential weight-loss programs for kids and adults.
Bishop has what some may consider radical advice about stamping out unhealthy habits: "Parents need to say, 'I will no longer accept that in our house. I will not allow it. We are going to be healthy. We are going to be active. This is my decision as a parent.' "
Make it a team effort
Fit4Allkids, a weight-loss and family fitness program created by All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, requires a parent or adult family member to attend its classes with their child. The weekly sessions include physical activity and lessons in nutrition, healthy food shopping, label reading, portion control and healthy cooking.
The program was life-changing for Sarah Olson of Dunedin, who was in eighth grade when she enrolled in Fit4Allkids about three years ago. Her mother, Geri Olson, says Sarah had gained weight after elementary school, wasn't physically active and wanted fast food all the time. Their pediatrician recommended Fit4AllKids, which requires a physician's prescription to participate.
"I didn't want to go at first," said Sarah, who is now 16. "But then when I started going, I loved it and always wanted to go."
The fact that her mother was also learning about nutrition and exercise, and had committed to make changes, was key.
"We get families started to prevent a pattern of yo-yo dieting in the future," said Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian and lead instructor with Fit4AllKids. "The program provides parents and children the building blocks for change.''
Give it time
Krieger cautions participants not to expect dramatic results at the scale right away.
"They don't lose a lot of weight during the eight-week program; that happens later, if they stick with the program on their own,'' Krieger said.
Most of Sarah Olson's success came gradually, over the course of almost three years after the program ended. She and her mother kept eating right and exercising; Sarah lost about 30 pounds and grew a couple of inches. Today she is an avid label reader, attends Jazzercise four days a week with her mom and maintains a healthy weight.
"I love exercising,'' she said. "I want to be an instructor when I turn 18.''
Setting goals is a powerful motivator. Julann Baker, 15, took advantage of Lifestyle Family Fitness' Teen Initiative, a free two-month membership program for ages 12 to 17, last summer. Her goal: to get in shape for a scholarship and beauty pageant. The St. Petersburg teen (the daughter of former Mayor Rick Baker) went to the gym two days a week and lost 15 pounds.
"I just wanted to be healthy. I wanted to show that you don't have to be skinny to be successful," says Julann, who won a title and is competing again this summer. Now she has a personal trainer and a paid gym membership.
Preaching to teens about the health risks of being overweight and inactive is often futile.
"Wellspring focuses on the social consequences of being overweight to motivate kids," said Bishop, whose camps will be familiar to fans of the TV reality series Too Fat for Fifteen.
Adolescents and teens want to fit in with their peers, and that can be tough for overweight kids. Teasing, bullying and social exclusion all make depression more likely for these kids, Bishop said.
Scott Danberg, director of fitness at the Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami said young people are also motivated by the idea of becoming physically stronger or better at sports. Pritikin offers family fitness programs all year, and teen programs during the summer for weight management and athletic performance.
"We tell them it's not just about health, but also about developing better skills, like improving your reaction time, your speed, your power. You'll jump higher, throw farther, kick a ball better. That's the sort of thing they will respond to," said Danberg.
Katie Smith, 14, has trained hard to advance in sports, and is taking the same methodical approach to her summer vacation.
During the school year, the Largo girl is a cheerleader, runs track and plays soccer. For the third consecutive summer, Katie has signed up for Lifestyle Family Fitness' free summer program.
"It will keep her active, in shape and gives her something to do during the day," said her mom, Shannon Shearer, 35, a triathlete.
Katie doesn't have a weight problem, but is conscious of choosing mostly healthy foods. "My mom encourages me so I can get to my goals," Katie said.
Bishop says it's no accident that families like Katie's have fit kids.
"The more planning, organization and thought you put into each day, the better off a kid will be,'' he said. "Fitness is about long-term planning.''
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.