DALLAS — Even kids who have been active during the summer can face a challenge when the school year begins.
They may spend as many as seven hours a day behind a desk. Physical education has been cut back in most elementary schools to no more than one hour once or twice a week. Then, after school, it's time for homework, dinner and bed.
The implications are scary. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in February suggests that obese children are more than twice as likely as the thinnest to die before age 55, and nearly one in three U.S. children is considered overweight or obese.
Nine-year-old Morgan Sinegal of Little Elm, Texas, explains how kids can stay fit even as summer play comes to an end.
"At recess, I usually run, and I play tag with some of my friends," she says at the Cooper Fitness Center, where she attended summer camp before her classes resumed. "If it's too cold or too hot, I go into the gym and play basketball."
She goes to after-school care because both her parents work: When the drama teacher gives kids an opportunity to stretch and to run around the stage, Morgan will do it. When the art teacher gives her group a 20-minute break, Morgan plans to head to the gym.
After dinner, her whole family — mother, father and brother, William, 4 — goes for a one-hour walk, sometimes feeding bread to ducks at a nearby pond.
What motivates Morgan?
"I want to have a lot of fun," she says. "But I want to be healthy and happy."
Talking to her parents, Mark and Claudine Sinegal, it's soon clear that the time they spend walking with Morgan and planning nutritious meals with her is fueling her determination to make what she calls the right decisions.
That's the key, says Meredith Rosson, Cooper's Youth Programs director, who says she coaches families to talk about playing together, rather than working out together.
"The family that plays together stays fit together," she says. "If your children pick up that you find exercise to be a chore, they, too, may be more apt to adopt this belief."
Mark Sinegal says the history of heart disease on both sides of their families motivates him and his wife.
"I come from a family that as we get older, our health deteriorates," Mark says. "We're both from Louisiana, where we eat very well. It's good-tasting food but not the healthiest, with jambalaya and fried seafood and beignets. I struggle with my weight. But I've always felt that when you establish a foundation with health, it can help you your whole life."
They work as a team, including the children. Claudine manages the food choices; she limits the amount of junk food in the pantry. Mark built the raised beds for the family garden, where they grew watermelon, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, bell peppers, strawberries and green onions this summer.
"Having a garden made me like vegetables," Morgan says, twirling a green Silly Bandz on her wrist that she was given at camp to remind her that greens are good. "Before, I was more of a fruit fan."
While Claudine sometimes packs lunch for Morgan, who just started fourth grade, she also studies the school lunch menu to identify nutritious choices, such as salads and yogurt.
Mark picked the fitness camp because he wanted his daughter to learn more about nutrition and exercise. She's learned so much that's she's been known to reproach mom for eating too many brownies. Don't get her started on when her parents take William and her to the mall for their after-dinner walk, either.
"If you can call walking at the mall exercise," she sniffs as her parents smile and shrug.
"We're not perfect," Mark says.
Even so, Morgan notes, she's pleased with their progress.
She has every confidence that with encouragement, they may improve in the fall.