by Brett Klika, CSCS

“He’s not losing any weight!”

The panicked parent had asked me to have a “side” conversation while her 10 year old son skipped, rolled, and climbed through the obstacle course I had created.

As a young fitness professional, I shared in the parent’s puzzlement. It was my first year as a personal trainer and this was my first overweight youth client. The family had come to me after their pediatrician voiced concern over an unfavorable BMI for their son.

Six weeks and twelve training sessions later there had been no change. Actually, he had gained a pound!

His fitness was improving and he enjoyed our workouts, always participating with gleeful effort. While he (nor his parents) did little to curtail his poor nutritional habits, his overall awareness and some small positive habits were emerging.

Nonetheless, weight loss was the goal and my program wasn’t delivering.

This scenario has become all too familiar amongst fitness professionals who work with a growing number of overweight children.  Despite following all the rules of fitness programming, the kids just don’t lose weight.

Are we doing something wrong?  Are we writing bad programs? Are we not hard enough on the parents?  Is there something we don’t understand about children’s metabolism?  Ethically, if we’re promising something we can’t deliver for a variety of reasons, should we continue to accept their parent’s money?

Before addressing these doubts and more, it’s important to consider the “rest of the story” from my first unsuccessful attempt at helping the young boy lose weight.

Despite the initial shortcomings and frustrations, the child’s parents acknowledged the step in the right direction and appreciated the rapport I had with their son.

They decided to continue.

Fast-forward nearly 17 years into the future.  Every year during the Holiday season I get to see this young man (now grown with a family), popping into the gym for a workout during their annual visit home.  Healthy, happy, and successful; excited to make health a part of his and his family’s life.

So what happened after my frustrating and apparently “fruitless” initial attempts to help this child improve his health?

In the days, weeks, and years to come, I spent thousands of hours with children in this same situation.  I was a counselor at a summer camp for overweight kids.  I received referrals from pediatricians.  I sat down with countless families, fearing for their child’s health.

During this time I learned much about both the simplicity and complexity of a youngster’s physiology and psychology.

The most important lesson I learned was the concept of patience.  Everyone involved with a child’s health, including us as fitness professionals, will be eager, if not panicked, to see traditional, fast results.

The fact is, there are many physiological as well as psychological barriers to “fast results” with children.

Psychologically, the way they think and act doesn’t favor adherence to drastic, acute, behavior changes.  Prior to puberty, their body has a physiological “plan” it intends to execute.  We may or may not be able to realistically subvert this plan.

I myself was an overweight child, despite growing up in a culture of wellness, until puberty set in.  Many fitness professionals share the same story.  Depending on age and genetics, kids reach “maximal growth velocity” at different ages.

While natural physiology is “doing it’s thing” the most important intervention we can have is to create a positive experience with healthy habits, in addition to doing everything we can to facilitate a “culture of wellness” in the child’s home environment.

When healthy habits and a culture of wellness meet favorable physiology (puberty), results not only happen relatively quickly, they last for life.

Consider four of the most significant “rules” when providing a weight loss program for children.

1. Kids think in the “now”

Kids evaluate outcomes based on the “now.”  Until well after puberty, they lack the mental circuitry to consistently link current actions to future outcomes.  While the idea that “healthy habits will help you be healthy” sounds good, it means very little to their irrational brain.

To position healthy habits as forefront in their life, focus on the “in the moment”
feeling they have after partaking in them.  Highlight how they feel when they leave an exercise session with you.  Have them bring a healthy snack to have a few bites before (power up!) and after a workout and discuss how this makes them feel.

With nutrition, I call this the “Popeye effect”.  Many of us remember watching Popeye munch spinach out of a can to get super-strength, making us want to do the same.

That cartoon would have had a different effect if Popeye’s gimmick was to eat spinach so one day he would “decrease his likelihood for heart disease and cancer, increasing the odds he will whoop Bluto”.

2. Trust is #1

Kids, particularly overweight kids who are teased and often socially ostracized, have developed an adversarial relationship with their own health.  They don’t like their condition, but they have been forced to defend it against peers, teachers, coaches, and numerous others waiting in line to condemn them.

We as fitness professionals are quickly placed into the “enemy” box when they think we’re coming from a place of judgement.  “Don’t play video games, don’t eat junk food, don’t, don’t, don’t!”

While these suggestions are valid, it makes the kids think “of course you’re going to tell me these things, you’re one of THEM!”.  I have found that engaging kids in conversations about their favorite video games, junk food, etc. actually facilitates the process of change.

When they share, they trust.  When they realize I’m there to help, not judge, they’re willing to let down their guard and not “defend” their poor habits.  This is the space I have been able to facilitate the greatest amount of change.

The progress is slow and gradual, but lasting.

3. Focus on acts of commission before omission

Unfortunately, healthy habits have become synonymous with lengthy lists of “don’t.”  “Don’t eat this, don’t eat that, don’t sit too long, don’t, don’t, don’t.”

While adults are sensitive to this, kids are even more so.  Again, the more “don’t” you employ, the more you create a barrier to connection with youngsters.  While some basic boundaries and guidelines need to be set, consider focusing on what they SHOULD do.

  • Give them a water bottle to fill and finish every day
  • Provide a movement challenge each week (get off the floor without your hands, do a wall facing squat, balance on one leg for 30 seconds, etc)
  • Have them hand-write the ingredients list from their favorite cereal, chips, crackers, or other junk food
  • Bring an after workout snack consisting of a protein, carbohydrate, and fruit/vegetable

Think small and simple!

It’s insane to think a child is going to make drastic changes or take drastic overnight measures to change their behavior.

Success with a simple task like eating a vegetable with dinner the night before they train with you outweighs failure from a stringent, restrictive diet you place them on.  Provide rewards and incentives within your training sessions for these behaviors.

4. Engage the family

As we all know, unless there is a prevalent “culture of wellness” at home, it’s extremely difficult to create change in the unhealthy habits of children.  It’s essential to address this at the onset of a program.

All the rules outlined above apply just as much to adults as they do to children.  Refrain from creating a long list of “don’t” for families.  Provide them small goals to work together on each week.

When speaking to parents about family health behaviors, be confident and straightforward, not accusatory and condescending.  Mention statistics, ask for help, ask questions, and try to get them to arrive at the right conclusion themselves.

While I could write a book (and currently am!) about the ins and outs of facilitating a culture of wellness with kids, adults, and families, taking the foundational steps outlined above can turn struggle into long term success!

Always remember that while fast results are gratifying, there is nothing like seeing the outcome of a lasting, lifelong relationship with health that you had an instrumental role in creating.

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