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5 key lifestyle habits parents can follow to protect their kids from obesity

The study's main author, a Harvard University professor of medicine, shared the most surprising finding.
by Marguerite Ward / / Source: TODAY

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When it comes to your child’s health, the age old advice to lead by example still applies.

A new study found children of mothers who follow a healthy lifestyle have a significantly lower risk of developing obesity than those whose mothers don’t.

“Children look up to their parents. They follow their parents because their parents are their role models," the study’s main author, Harvard University assistant professor Qi Sun, told TODAY.

While the study’s findings may not be incredibly surprising, Sun said the extent to which a mother’s health and that of her children’s correlate is.

Mother and daughter wearing roller skates
Harvard University researchers found a direct link between a mother's lifestyle and her kids' chances of becoming obese. Getty Images stock

The research, published in the British Medical Journal, examined the children of nearly 17,000 women in two U.S. studies. It studied the following five indicators and found that they all were linked to a child’s chances of obesity:

  • the mother’s body mass index (or BMI)
  • whether or not she smoked
  • her alcohol consumption level
  • her amount of physical activity
  • her diet

After taking account of potentially influential factors, such as age, ethnicity and history of chronic diseases, the researchers found the risk of obesity in kids was 56 percent lower in children of women with a "healthy" BMI (18-25) than for mothers in the overweight or underweight categories.

Mothers who followed all five healthy lifestyle habits had children whose chance of obesity was 75 percent lower compared to offspring whose mothers did not follow any of them.

“A mother’s BMI is the strongest correlate of the children’s BMI, followed by smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and the mother’s diet,” said Sun.

For example, Sun explained, a mother who regularly engages in physical activity is more likely to encourage her kids to play sports or engage in other activity themselves. Similarly, a mother who doesn’t smoke is more likely to encourage her kids not to smoke.

The study suggests that if a mother works on having a healthy lifestyle, it could benefit not only her health, but that of her child's.

In addition to physical health factors, Sun said a mother’s lifestyle can have a significant impact on her kids’ emotional, social and psychological health.

“A mother who consumes alcohol only in moderation could have a lower risk of depression. And we know with depression that it can be a devastating factor that could impact a child’s health,” he said.

The paper did not study fathers, but the researchers said they hoped it would be done in a future study.

However, Sun did add: “If both partners choose a healthy lifestyle, their children could more likely live a healthy lifestyle.”

While the study was conducted mainly on women reporting their own lifestyle habits, as opposed to researchers measuring them, Sun said the correlation is strong enough to warrant attention.

“What surprised me the most was the strength of the association. I didn’t expect to see such a strong association with a mother’s lifestyle and the risk of obesity among children,” he said.

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