Can Fitness Help Prevent Childhood Diseases?

By Leah – October 4, 2011

Nothing is surer to bring smiles than watching a fit, happy baby wiggle and coo, or seeing a toddler, intent on trying out first steps. While it’s easy to recognize a happy baby or a sick child, what exactly makes up a fit and healthy baby? What are parents to do to insure that their children are growing up to be fit youngsters?

Dr. Ari Brown, MD, FAAP, shares her expertise about disease prevention and health and fitness in children. Dr. Brown is a nationally known pediatrician with a practice located here in Austin. She’s a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which boasts some 60,000 members, and is often called upon to represent the field. She’s appeared on NBC Today Show, Dr. Phil, CNN, and The Rachel Ray Show. If you’ve typed in a question related to children on WebMD, Dr. Brown may have written the information you read in response; she is the site’s child health expert. She is an advisor for Parents Magazine and has written the popular parenting books, Expecting 411, Baby 411, and Toddler 411.

Dr. Brown defines a healthy baby as “… one who is growing and developing appropriately for his age, meeting his milestones, being mentally and physically active, successfully accomplishing activities of daily living for his age, unencumbered by frequent or chronic illness.” Those early visits to the pediatrician are critical for parents and doctor to track developments, both physical and cognitive, and keep a watchful eye for delays or issues.

As we become adults, we make distinctions between being “healthy” and being “fit.” Health means being free of disease while fitness refers to what our bodies can do. There are all levels of fitness for healthy adults; what’s fit for a Navy SEAL is different from fitness for a recreational runner who wants to complete a 5K. Flexibility for a fit senior citizen is not the same as for a high school gymnast. Though divergent in abilities, all those groups are fit and healthy. (Want to see if you’re fit? Take the President’s Challenge, found at, from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, a wonderful resource for families. Or check out the US armed forces physical fitness standards on —enter ‘military fitness test’ in the search field.)

On the flip side, it is possible to be a healthy adult who is not physically fit. Someone who is free of health issues and diseases, possesses acceptable body weight, yet has little ability to get off the couch, much less run, cycle, or perform physical labor, isn’t fit.

For children (especially under the age of six years), however, health and fitness are essentially synonymous. According to Dr. Brown, “A healthy child is one who is physically ‘fit’ or active, moving his body regularly at a level appropriate for his ability at his age. Healthy children, by my definition, are those who are fit. A child who is not physically using his body on a regular basis is not a healthy child.”

An important task for parents is ensuring that their children have a home environment that encourages fitness as a lifestyle. Addressing this topic is one of the things Dr. Brown loves about being a pediatrician. “I can help guide families on the right road from the start,” she said. “It’s extremely difficult to change adult behaviors of inactivity, smoking, or poor nutritional habits for example.

“Prioritizing a healthy diet of a variety of foods and appropriate serving sizes and being physically active on a daily basis [all] takes a family—and the family unit as a whole should start [this lifestyle] right from pregnancy. As an example: women who suffer from gestational diabetes in pregnancy (of which one risk factor is maternal obesity) are more likely to have a child who ultimately is obese and is at greater risk of developing diabetes later in life. The time to start obesity prevention for your child is while she is in the womb!”

Part of keeping your child healthy and fit means preventative maintenance in the form of doctor well-checks and vaccinations. While the media has played up some reluctance to vaccinate, Dr. Brown says the science simply doesn’t back it. As a spokeswoman for the APP, she is often asked to give expert response to this question, and here’s her reply: “There were many questions raised about vaccine safety from 1999-2009. Those questions were asked and they were answered with very solid science. Very few parents have significant vaccination concerns that keep them from choosing to vaccinate these days. There are certain hot pockets in the country where families are opting out of vaccinations, but less than 1 percent of U.S. children are unvaccinated according to the last CDC survey on vaccinations.

“If you look at all of the possible diseases of childhood, infections rank at the top. While clean water, sanitation, and good hygiene practices help a great deal in limiting the spread of infection, vaccinations unquestionably have significantly reduced childhood illness and death since the first smallpox vaccine was created. Vaccines are safe, and they are effective. Parents today have little to no familiarity with the diseases that vaccines prevent. So, yes, vaccinations keep kids healthy—again, prevent what is preventable,” Dr. Brown emphasizes. “Vaccinations top the list in reducing the most serious infections you want to protect your child from. As a pediatrician and as a mom myself, I vaccinated my own kids and I would not do anything differently for yours.”

Dr. Brown offers families practical tips for the best possible home environment for health and fitness. She stressed the importance of being a good role model, so that your children see you value activity and responsible eating. One of her down-to-earth practical guidelines is that families “…banish the four C’s from your pantry—Coke, Chips, Candy, Cookies. If they aren’t in your house, you won’t consume them regularly. It’s okay for a treat, but not a daily staple.” There’s no need to worry about restrictive diets and forced workouts. Moderation is the key.

“I am all about balance and being a good role model for your child. Make it part of your daily lives but don’t let it become your daily lives. Teach your child healthy habits and she will make good decisions when she is given the chance to make choices on her own.”

For information on helping children recover from wildfire disasters, click here


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