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10 Ways to Help Families Get Healthy

by Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD on Dec 16, 2016

A child who grows up in a family where both parents are highly physically active is much more likely to be active himself. . . . An adolescent with a parent who demands that he “clean his plate” may lose his ability to respond to hunger cues and end up battling excess weight gain all his life. . . . A working parent with a spouse who prepares calorie-dense, nutrient-poor meals for family dinners will struggle to maintain a healthy eating plan. . . . A parent who strives to provide a healthier home environment for a child recently diagnosed with obesity is apt to lose weight herself.

A growing body of research makes it clear: Families provide a powerful force in supporting—or opposing—better health behaviors. Indeed, the authors of a state-of-the-art review in a prestigious cardiology journal call families “a linchpin for cardiovascular health promotion throughout the life course” (Vedanthan et al. 2016).

Whether you work primarily with children, adolescents or adults, expanding your scope to meet the needs of the whole family is likely to improve client outcomes while enabling you to reach more people and grow your business. This article provides evidence supporting a family-level approach to fitness and nutrition coaching, and an overview of this growing opportunity for health and fitness professionals.

The Value of a Family Focus

A classic study of childhood obesity demonstrated the power of a family-level intervention to simultaneously improve the health of children and parents. In the yearlong study, researchers divided parent-child dyads into two groups. In the first group, the child in each dyad received information and coaching on how to make healthful choices. In the second group, the information and coaching went to the parent in each dyad (Golan, Weizman & Fainaru 1999).

Here’s what the study found: Making the parent the agent of change made the biggest difference in improving the health of both parent and child. Study leaders coached parents to do the following:

  • Increase physical activity and decrease sedentary time.
  • Reduce saturated fat intake.
  • Decrease exposure to unhealthful foods.
  • Apply behavioral modification.
  • Practice parenting skills.

After a year, the children were healthier, and the parents had improved their health habits, lost weight and decreased their cardiovascular-disease risk factors (Golan, Weizman & Fainaru 1999).

Ultimately, this study and many others after it show that when parents receive coaching and guidance on helping their children succeed, they succeed, too.

Working with families provides many opportunities for intervention and coaching, including exploring how adjustments to daily routines, responsibilities, communications and emotional connections can help optimize health behaviors. In fact, just having the conversation about health can improve outcomes. One study found that families who talk openly about nutrition and physical activity are more likely to eat healthfully and stay active (Baiocchi-Wagner & Talley 2012).

10 Ways to Help Families Change

Family-based fitness and nutrition coaching is a relationship where an expert on behavior change, family dynamics, nutrition and physical activity works with individuals and families to optimize health and well-being.

To date, there is no standardized training to help health and fitness pros meet this growing need. Nevertheless, you can deploy the 10 strategies outlined below to play a powerful role in helping families work together to improve their health.

1. Learn Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a conversational approach that coaches use to help people “talk themselves into change” and build a sense of self-efficacy. This approach uses open-ended questions, reflective listening, affirmations and summarizing to develop a person’s “change talk”—statements that encourage behavior change.

For example, a mom might say, “I know I need to be more active to set a good example for my daughter, but it is so hard to make time for it.” A coach using motivational interviewing could respond with a reflective statement, such as, “Even though time is tight, you want your daughter to see you ‘walking the talk.’” If the mom says, “Yes, I do,” the coach might ask, “What would that look like?” This prompts the mom to find her own solutions, which builds her self-efficacy (her belief that she can change despite the barriers).

2. Help Families Talk About Healthy Behaviors

When possible, engage all family members in a discussion of nutrition and physical activity. For example, you might ask, “On a grading scale of F to A-plus, how healthy is your home?” Follow up by asking why they gave that grade rather than a lower one (e.g., “Why give a B and not a C?”). This helps the family members identify things that are going well.

Then ask what it would take to improve the grade, and how other family members could help. Identify barriers and find ways to overcome them. This guided conversation helps people open up on their health behaviors.

For many more guidelines on helping families get healthy, please see “Coaching the Whole Family” in the online IDEA Library or in the November–December 2016 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD IDEA Author/Presenter

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is a board-certified pediatrician, registered dietitian, and ACE Health Coach. She is committed to providing evidence-based nutrition and fitness information to health professionals and consumers alike in a way that is logical, practical and directly applicable to readers’ lives. She has authored over 100 publications and book chapters, all which are based on the latest scientific evidence and presented in a manner that is easy-to-understand and apply. She is Director of Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) having written the nutrition chapters for each of ACE’s textbooks, the ACE Fitness Nutrition Manual and Specialty Certification, and recorded several Webinars and online courses. Furthermore, as a spokesperson for ACE, the largest fitness certifying and advocacy organization in the country, she informs broadcast and print media outlets throughout the U.S. on pertinent nutrition and fitness issues. She is author '"Eat Your Vegetables!" and other mistakes parents make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters'. She presented a similar topic at IDEA World 2009; the video is available for purchase through IDEA. Certifications: ACE, ACSM and NSCA