Keeping Kids Healthy While in School

Turns out it takes more than an apple a day to keep your kids out of the doctor’s office. Here’s what you need to make this fall their healthiest yet.

POP QUIZ: Besides homework and art projects, what are your kids likely to bring home during the first few weeks of school?

That’s right, a cold. But it’s not just exposure to the germs of hundreds of other children that’ll keep her bed-bound. Creeping stress levels and poor eating habits also are to blame. Of course, apart from putting your kids in a plastic bubble, there’s no surefire way to keep them healthy. That’s why experts recommend that you focus on the tried-and-true, such as managing stress, eating whole foods, and fending off germs. No big surprises there, but for kids, an ounce of prevention matters even more than it does for you. Kids, are more susceptible to getting sick than adults, because a child’s immune system is still inexperienced. So what’s a parent to do? Help your kids follow these rules for stressing less, eating better, and dealing with the inevitable germs that come their way. Here’s how.

Stress Less

Any transition provokes anxiety, but going back to school, with its brand-new rules and social minefields, can be a bona fide stress fest. That not only affects your child’s behavior—classic signs of stress include irritability, difficulty focusing, and trouble learning—but it also makes her more likely to get sick. Stress is really hard on the immune system—especially a child’s. Think of stress as an attack on your kid’s body. If her body is busy dealing with the stress, it won’t have the bandwidth to manage any foreign bodies that come into it, like illness-causing germs.

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Here’s how to help calm kids so they stay well, mentally and physically:

Encourage some fun in the sun. You know how great you feel after you hit the gym or take a power walk? A little exercise has the same mood-boosting, stress-busting effects for kids. A study by the American College of Sports Medicine shows that playing sports can even help your child excel academically. Bonus: The more she plays outside, the more much-needed vitamin D she’ll soak up from the sun. It’s thought that one of the reasons that viral infections are more common in winter months is that we’re spending less time in the sun, so our vitamin D levels go way down, reducing our germ resistance, says Kemper. In the fall, 15 to 20 minutes outside four times a week should supply enough of this nutrient.

Crank up the tunes. Is your teen’s iPod practically an extension of her body? It’s a good thing that listening to music has been shown to lower blood pressure and anxiety in both kids and adults. If your child isn’t above listening to your music suggestions, slip him a playlist of classical works (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1”) or acoustic rock (Jack Johnson, Dar Williams) to boost concentration and calm.

Do yoga together.

More schools are turning to this ancient practice for a midday relaxation break, but even if yoga isn’t part of your child’s curriculum, you can teach a few poses at home. Warrior I, for instance, with legs stretched wide and arms raised, calls us to attention and demands both physical and mental strength, while the upward lift of the arms and head symbolize victory. That makes it a great confidence booster to do just before a big test.

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Help children find their happy place. Visualization can help kids tap into their imagination and restore calm., Ask your child to close his eyes and picture himself in a place where everything is peaceful. His body will react as if he’s actually in that peaceful place. To help your child conjure up a favorite, calming spot—whether it’s the forest you hiked through last summer or his favorite room in the house—ask questions that evoke all five senses, such as, “What can you see? What do you hear? How does the sun feel on your skin?” The more sensory details he fills in, the more his body will be convinced that it’s time to chill.

Unwind on foot. Ditch the dinner dishes, and head out for an after-supper stroll together. Teens are more likely to spill the news about their day if you’re doing something else, like walking. And once they’ve vented, they’ll feel calmer and sleep better. The end-of-the-day exercise endorphins will help you relax, too.

Eat Well.

Unhealthy diets loaded with junk food take their toll on our youth: More than 17 percent of American children ages 6 to 19 are overweight. In the short term, a nutrient-deficient diet makes it difficult for kids to stave off illness. One of the biggest immune-system offenders is inflammation—and the biggest contributor to inflammation is high-sugar and processed foods. You need to eat better. Normally, the body mobilizes its natural immune defenses to combat acute illnesses or injuries such as a sore throat or a cut, but when you’re overweight, your immune system shifts into overdrive and attacks healthy cells and tissue. The resulting chronic inflammation can lead to a host of health woes, from the common cold to more serious diseases.

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Fight Germs

For your kids, the best thing about back-to-school time is seeing all their old friends again—but that’s exactly what makes them prone to landing on the couch with a cold. “When you’re around a whole bunch of other kids and somebody gets sick, it’s easier for it to spread around,” says David Becker, MD, an integrative pediatrician and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Boost your child’s immune defenses by adding these tricks to your stay-well arsenal:

Don’t underestimate the power of sleep. When your kids don’t get enough z’s, they’re three times more likely to catch a cold—possibly because sleep deprivation impairs immune cells that fight infection. But tweens and teens who have been blowing off bedtime during summer vacation often have difficulty adapting to an earlier start. To adjust sleep schedules for school, set the alarm 15 minutes earlier each day the week before school begins, slowly inching up wake-up times. If your kid is still struggling to sleep, ban television, computer time, and video games an hour before bedtime, since the bright light can throw off a child’s natural circadian rhythm, making it harder to nod off.

Make hand washing a habit. You’ve heard it before: Simple hand washing works wonders when it comes to staving off illness. But while antibacterial soap or gel is what’s on hand at school, research from the Mayo Clinic shows that anti-bacterial products may actually contribute to the spread of superbugs—antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause longer-lasting, harder-to-treat illnesses.

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