Bill Germanakos hit a turning point in his life at Six Flags Great Adventure Amusement Park. He waited an hour with his 13-year-old daughter, Adrienne, to get in the front car of the Rolling Thunder roller coaster. As he boarded, Germanakos, then 334 pounds, realized he might not be able to enjoy the ride. When the safety bar snapped shut, he was in so much pain from the pressure of the metal against him that he had to get out.
Germanakos and his daughter walked past all the people waiting in line. "I was humiliated and devastated," says Germanakos. He apologized to Adrienne for disappointing her. "She took me by the hand and said, 'Dad, I still love you.'"
It was then that Germanakos made up his mind to get healthy. He had already been told by his doctor that his life would be cut short by 20 years if he didn't make some changes. "I'll be damned if I don't make it to walk this little angel down the aisle," said Germanakos, who soon became a contestant on the hit NBC reality show The Biggest Loser. After eight months of supervised diet and exercise, Bill walked away as the biggest winner, 164 pounds lighter — and $250,000 richer.
While Germanakos's weight loss story is unique, his desire to live a healthier lifestyle and be a role model for his children is not. Families across the nation are confronting the issue of obesity in a major way. Up through the 1970s, only 5 percent of children were clinically obese. As we've become a more sedentary culture, that number has steadily increased to 15 percent. Being overweight significantly increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, gall bladder problems, osteoarthritis, and breast, colon, and uterine cancer. Among children, there is an alarming rise in Type 2 diabetes, which historically was an adult-onset illness. An even more immediate side effect for kids is low self-esteem, which makes it even less likely that they will engage in exercise or join a sports team at school.
Jay Hoecker, MD, pediatric editor of mayoclinic.com, ticks off several contributing factors: Overworked parents are often too tired to cook healthy meals at home, opting instead for fast food and microwavable meals, which are typically loaded with carbs, fat, and sugar; kids have limited amounts of physical activity; and we're all plugged into computers, video games, and TV sets. "When you're in front of a screen, you're not moving, and you're likely to be eating," Hoecker says.
While the current statistics paint a grim picture, hope is not lost and there is a lot you can do to get your own family on a healthier track. Experts agree that children's health begins in the home, with you — and you don't have to be a contestant on a TV show or an Olympic athlete to get the ball rolling. "Role modeling is extremely important," Hoecker says. "Parents should have the diet they want their children to eat and do the exercise they expect their children to do."
Ensuring that your child gets enough physical activity is critical to both his physical and mental health. Exercise promotes everything from decreased risk of disease and longer life expectancy to a greater sense of well-being and solid self-esteem. In addition, numerous studies have found that active kids have stronger attention skills in school.
These tips from the American Heart Association can help:
- Limit screen time to less than 2 hours per day.
- Give your kids household chores that require physical exertion (keeping in mind their age and skill level) such as mowing the lawn, sweeping, raking leaves, and taking out the garbage.
- Set homework time for early evening instead of immediately after school to allow some diversion from the structure of the school day. Kids should be active after school and before dinner.
- Choose fitness-oriented gifts — a jump rope, mini-trampoline, tennis racket, baseball bat, a membership at the local YMCA. Select the gift with your child's skills and interests in mind.
As a family, think about activities you might enjoy doing together. Plan family outings and vacations that involve vigorous activities, such as hiking, biking, skiing, running, swimming, and tennis. Finding something that everyone can do is key, and there are many options. Juliette Kurth, who offers parent-child yoga classes at Silver Lake Yoga in Los Angeles, suggests thinking outside the box. "Parents may not be able to get out on the baseball field or on the soccer field, but with yoga, everybody can do it," says Kurth. "Yoga models good behavior all around. It's relaxing, it teaches everybody how to exercise in a noncompetitive style, and it emphasizes the importance of your breath and controlling your emotions."
Making lifestyle changes and navigating the myriad messages about diet and exercise isn't easy, but increasingly, there are organizations out there ready to help your family.
Jim McCrudden, CEO of the Lakeland Hills YMCA in Mountain Lakes, NJ, instituted "Family Nights" to get everyone off the couch and into the swing of things in a low-key way. The time at the Y gives families an opportunity to get caught up after a busy week and to be in an environment that encourages physical activity. Families can even spend time in the Cardio Lounge, which is equipped with large-screen TVs and Wii stations so families can play video games that require physical interaction.
"It doesn't get your heart rate up all that high, but it's a way to introduce kids at a young age to the idea that exercise can be fun," McCrudden says. He adds that other popular equipment includes stationary bikes with video monitors that can be networked together, so it seems like players are racing up and down hills and through the woods or other terrain.
As for Biggest Loser Germanakos, his health revolution has had a major positive impact on his family: Food around the house is healthier and Germanakos's newfound focus on fitness inspires his family to ride bikes, take walks, and ski together. He offers this advice to others: "Involve the kids. They would like nothing better than to have you be active with them." Like hiking around an amusement park to get to the next roller coaster.