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Sunday, September 13, 2009

When It Pays to Play

Remember how much more active we used to be? How to get back in the habit.

Lessons of the Past

Who could forget the late-'60s sitcom The Brady Bunch? When Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby and Cindy weren't all gathered around the table eating pork chops and applesauce while gabbing about the triumphs and mishaps of their day, they were riding their bikes or playing ball in the AstroTurf backyard. Or the family might be camping together, competing in a sack race, riding mules into the Grand Canyon -- or even just running down the stairs of their mod split-level house to answer the phone. The groovy TV show that aired from 1969 to 1974 may not have reflected some of the harsher realities of American family life in that era, but it did show we moved around more (and ate better!) in those pre-computer, precell-phone times.

Today, many people wistfully reminisce about how Americans lived before video games usurped sandlot baseball and fast food replaced meals around the table. We can learn from the way America lived then, including how to eat healthier and lose weight.

The Home-Cooked Advantage
The family dinner is disappearing, plummeting 33 percent in the past three decades. The result is obvious: "We're eating more calories and getting less exercise than previous generations,” says Lawrence Cheskin, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. "Supersizing our food is supersizing us.”

Aside from the emotional benefits of sharing a family meal, the real advantage is control -- of the quality, ingredients and portions of food. In 1970, 34 percent of America's food budget was spent in restaurants. Now it's nearly half. "And restaurant portions have ballooned,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RD, an adjunct professor at NYU and author of The Portion Teller. In her research, Young found restaurant portions were two to eight times that of standard serving sizes.

Eating while driving or watching television has another unhealthy side effect. Distracted, we don't realize how much we're putting in our mouths. At family dinners, when we pause to talk, we eat more slowly, allowing our stomachs time to signal our brains that we're full.

In addition, so much of what's been designed for our high-tech age keeps us from moving around. We sit for hours at the computer -- working, shopping, reading, researching, playing games, even making friends. Without ever leaving the couch, we can answer the phone, change the channel and send e-mails from our handheld devices. Studies have shown that some kids raised on these gadgets may expend almost no extra physical energy in the course of a day.

But here's how it used to be: We got up to change the channel. We walked to the corner mailbox to send a letter. We ran around the backyard to play a game. We got up to answer the phone. We went to the library to do research. We made new friends in the park or at the bowling alley. Parents went for a walk after dinner. Kids went outside and just played. And those little expenditures of calories really added up. Today, kids must be productive and prepare for success. From 1981 to 1997, children's free time dropped by 12 hours a week and unstructured activities by 50 percent. "We're so worried about our kids being able to compete that we've created stress for the entire family,” says William Doherty, PhD, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. And, as we know, stress can lead to overeating and obesity -- something we never saw in the lives of that Brady gang.

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