Back to school health for children: Moderation and balance are essential
As fall rolls in and another school year begins, the Military Health System is encouraging parents and children to remember some everyday tips for staying healthy. A few helpful habits, like washing hands, covering mouths and getting enough sleep, exercise and nutrition, can help fight off common germs and illnesses.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alvin Garcia, clinical nurse in charge of the pediatrics clinic at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in northern Virginia, says upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold, are widespread during the school year because of close quarters.
Parents and teachers can help fend off many of these easily transmittable germs by having children practice frequent hand-washing and coughing or sneezing into the crooks of their elbows. They should also be discouraged from touching their faces with their hands, especially around the mouth area.
“Kids will follow their parents or they’ll follow examples. Just try to be the best example you can be for your kids,” said Garcia, who recommends washing hands or using hand sanitizer multiple times a day.
Proper nutrition can help foster strong bones and an immune system that is better able to fight off illness-causing agents. A nutritional diet is filled with vegetables, fruits, dairy, protein and starches. It should also have complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, and healthy fats, such as avocado, fish and nuts. However, the diet should also be low in sodium, high fructose syrup, sugar and saturated fats.
“It takes a whole family to investigate what kind of nutrition they’re eating,” said Garcia, who encourages parents to follow Food and Drug Administration food pyramid recommendations for good nutrition. Reading labels is also important, since serving sizes are often times smaller than people think.
Exercise and sleep are also important for the body to function well. Without sufficient sleep, nutrition and exercise, children can be prone to metabolic syndrome, said Army Capt. Kristen Romanelli, a staff pediatrician at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. This syndrome, made up of a group of metabolic conditions such as high blood pressure combined with abdominal obesity, can put them at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other health issues in the future.
“The foundation that is laid out during childhood will follow them through their adulthood,” said Romanelli. “Without proper nutrition and exercise, childhood obesity, early onset of diabetes and nutritional deficiencies are possible.”
The amount of exercise and sleep a child needs varies by age. Younger children could need as much as three or four hours of activity a day, whereas older children are recommended to still get at least one hour of physical activity.
Similarly, the younger the child is, the more sleep he or she needs, said Romanelli. She recommends 11 to 12 hours a night for preschool aged children and 10 to 11 hours a night for elementary-aged children. Teenagers should get at least nine hours of sleep.
“Lack of sleep in children can show similar characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, including lack of attention and irritability,” said Romanelli, who recommends setting the ideal bedtime for children between 7 and 9 p.m. Establishing a routine for bedtime can help. She also suggests turning off monitors, such as televisions, phones and computers, two hours before bedtime.
“The best advice for children to ensure good health during the school year is to listen to your parents about what to do, because they have your best intentions in mind,” said Romanelli.