If 2020 was a year characterized by public health panic, 2021 just may be the year that personal health reigns. Fitness and well-being goals are always popular with people at the onset of a new year; approximately 55 percent of New Year’s resolutions are health-related, according to research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
That’s especially true this year, as families embrace a more proactive approach to personal health, says Michelle B. Smith, RDN, the lead dietitian and owner of Sensibly Sprouted, a dietetic practice in Bellingham. “Many families are wanting to take more control of their health and realizing that we have so much more control of our health than we previously thought.”
Ready to move family wellness to the top of your priority list in 2021? Here are five health-related trends to track.
Last year saw more Americans serving plant-based foods. Yale’s program on Climate Change Communication reported that 94 percent of Americans were willing to eat more fruits and vegetables in 2020. Smith of Sensibly Sprouted expects that trend to continue.
“We definitely saw more interest in plant-based diets from families in 2020,” she says. “I think a huge driving force behind this trend is the desire to improve one’s overall health and well-being.”
Although the pandemic has motivated families to prioritize their health, it has also made healthy food more expensive and less accessible for many families. “I think COVID has been a double-edged sword when it’s come to plant-based eating,” notes Smith. With meat shortages in some areas and people eating and cooking more meals at home, experimenting with plant-based recipes made sense for some families. But stress and financial concerns have made adopting an entirely new way of eating close to impossible for many.
Parents often ask about getting enough protein in a plant-based diet, notes Smith. “We now know that as long as the diet is balanced and enough calories are being consumed, this doesn’t have to be a worry.” Plenty of plants offer protein, from peas and beans to whole grains like quinoa, so kids eating a well-rounded vegetarian diet can easily consume the protein they need.
With food costs rising, another concern for families is adopting a plant-based diet while on a budget, says Smith. “This is where I remind my patients that the most expensive food items in your cart tend to be processed foods and meats. When done with a whole-foods twist, plant-based eating isn’t just good for your overall health, but great for the health of your wallet, too!”
Slim down those grocery bills by first shopping along the perimeter of the store, where you’ll find minimally processed foods and bulk beans, grains, fruits and vegetables; save highly processed plant-based dairy and meat alternatives for occasional splurges.
Research on nutrition and physical activity suggests that preschoolers should take as many as 14,000 steps daily, kids ages 6–11 should rack up as many as 12,000 (for girls) to 15,000 (for boys), and adolescents should get from 10,000 to 12,000. Multiple sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommend an hour of physical activity per day. With regular physical education and recess on pause, that’s no easy feat, so more families are resorting to wearable activity trackers that motivate kids to move.
Wearable technology was named the top fitness trend of 2020, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Trackers are trendy, but do they work? Scientists say yes — multiple studies have shown that kids who use fitness trackers are more active and spend more time outdoors.
Feature-rich kids’ fitness trackers from well-known brands such as Fitbit, Garmin and Leapfrog are keeping up with their grown-up counterparts. Along with counting steps, some offer games and challenges, rewards for meeting exercise goals and different settings for different types of exercise. Using integrated apps, parents can monitor their kids’ health and activity metrics, track chores and screen time, and even dole out allowance.
Activity trackers may not be right for every child; suitability depends on their age, temperament, technical savvy and level of motivation. Families that want to try out the trend without worrying that their child will lose — or lose interest in — a pricey device can find basic models that track steps and a few other metrics for about $20 at major retailers.
Focus on vision
Because of the increasing number of hours kids spent focusing on small screens, childhood myopia (or nearsightedness) was deemed a global epidemic in 2019. In Europe and North America, as many as half of all children are myopic by the time they finish high school; in Asia, rates are as high as 90 percent.
Then the pandemic ushered in long-term remote learning, with children suddenly spending their entire school day online. Many families have also relaxed screen-time rules during the pandemic to let kids communicate and connect virtually with friends and family.
This upswing in hours spent on digital devices is causing eyestrain, blurry vision, dry eyes and worsening problems such as myopia, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Remote learning means that many children don’t have access to routine vision screening at school; even with vision screening, some common vision issues, such as convergence insufficiency or problems coordinating the eyes to focus, are easy to miss, says Alan P. Pearson, O.D., Ph.D., clinical director of the EYE Center for Children’s Vision, Learning & Technology at the University of Washington – Bothell.
Our eyes function best with a mix of close-range and distance viewing, so long hours on screens without breaks are problematic, says Pearson. “Blurry or double vision is a real problem for children because it’s going to interfere with the quality of learning, attention and focus.” Taking regular vision breaks of 20 seconds for every 20 minutes spent on screens can alleviate complaints such as eyestrain and dry eyes.
Many online learning platforms that pack multiple apps and links on a screen weren’t designed for extended viewing by children, notes William Erdly, Ph.D., the EYE Center’s technology and research director. “Look up ‘vision ergonomics’ to find information on how to set up better workspaces for remote learning,” Erdly advises.
To detect signs of vision problems in kids, parents can tune into four categories of symptoms: feeling-related complaints (“My eyes feel sore”); descriptions of how objects look (“The words look blurry”); changes in performance (such as skipping or misreading words); and behavioral signs, which could include avoiding close-vision tasks like reading, unintentionally winking or holding reading materials very close to the face. Noting symptoms in any of these areas warrants an exam by an eye doctor, covered as an essential benefit under the Affordable Care Act.
If your kids were begging for a puppy before the pandemic, 2020 may have been their lucky year. According to a recent study by financial services company TD Ameritrade, one-third of Americans considered adopting a pet for companionship once social distancing became the norm last spring. But pets offer more than company; animal friends, particularly dogs and cats, provide a bounty of health and wellness benefits, from lower levels of stress to an ever-present reason to go outside for a walk. According to the CDC, pet owners are happier and fitter, registering lower blood pressure and better emotional health.
Pets can also foster connections between neighbors at a time when socializing is difficult. When the Grisim family of Snoqualmie Ridge adopted a dog, Max, last year, they were looking for a companion to make remote learning less lonely for their kids. Spending more time outside and connecting with neighbors was a bonus, says Charlene Grisim. “We share Max with our neighbors. There are a few girls in our neighborhood who borrow him so they can get outside in the afternoons.”
To make a pandemic pet adoption stick, make sure your lifestyle can accommodate a new animal companion even after mandates to work and learn from home are a thing of the past. According to the TD Ameritrade survey, families should also plan for pet-related expenses, since owning a dog can cost about $1,200 per year on average.
Beyond virtual PE
Despite the best efforts of their parents and teachers, many kids are getting less exercise during the pandemic, according to researchers at the University of Southern California. With extended remote learning and limitations on extracurricular activities, more families are looking for exercise options online. Kids are getting in on the virtual exercise trend; these days, they can jump into virtual workouts and classes ranging from high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to yoga to dance fitness.
If a remote fitness class doesn’t sound appealing, one-on-one fitness coaching might be more motivating, especially for tweens and teens with specific athletic goals in mind. Tamara Jones of Tacoma signed her ninth-grader up for a regular one-on-one remote weightlifting class to help maintain fitness for school sports. “Originally, I signed her up for two months, figuring it would get us through summer and into school starting,” says Jones. “Then, with school being remote and no athletics, we decided to keep going.”
Like any efforts related to family wellness, motivating kids to move is easier with support, says Jones. “I needed her to have something regular, something that wasn’t directed by me.”