Keep Your Kids Healthy With These Easy Additions to Your Daily Routine

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Germs are all around us. More than 100 billion bacteria live in our mouths and 1 trillion bacteria live on our skin. One gram of garden soil may contain 2.5 billion bacteria. Many of these invaders cause illnesses ranging from the common cold, stomach flu or skin infections, to more serious conditions, such as RSV, hepatitis and meningitis.

Fortunately, recent research offers sheds new light on the battle against infectious disease. Incorporate a few basic weapons into your daily routine to keep your kids in top fighting shape.

Soap and Water
Hand washing is the most effective means of controlling the spread of infection. It has been estimated that with better hand-washing practices, more than 1 million lives could be saved worldwide through a reduction in the incidence of diarrhea and other infectious diseases.

Teach your kids to wash their hands when they get home from school, before eating, after using the toilet and before they go to bed. Regular soap and water is fine. The critical point is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing the tops of the hands and in between the fingers, as well as the palms. Sing the “ABC song” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” while washing hands. When the song is over, your hands should be clean. Use paper or cloth towels rather than air dryers, which don’t effectively dry hands or remove lingering germs.

Save hand sanitizers for when you’re out and about with no access to soap and water, or when there’s a sick family member and the chances of spreading disease go way up. Disinfect hard surfaces regularly, since most respiratory illnesses and food-borne illnesses are spread at home.

Eat Your Veggies
Mom was right: Eating more fruits and vegetables can keep you healthy. A lack of good nutrition creates a vicious cycle; a poor diet increases the risk of infection, and infections cause further malnutrition. Eating a balanced diet, including whole grains, chicken, fish, fruits and vegetables, boosts the immune system and reduces the risk of illness.

What about vitamin supplements? Healthy children who eat an adequate diet generally don’t need vitamin supplements, advises Dr. Harley Rotbart, professor and vice chairman of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Denver and author of the book “Germ Proof Your Kids: The Complete Guide to Protecting (Without Overprotecting) Your Family from Infections.” Because supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s hard to know what you’re actually getting, and overdoses of some supplements such as iron and Vitamin A can be toxic. Instead, focus on increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains your child eats every day.

Get Your Zzzz’s
The occasional late-night movie or sleepover at a friend’s house probably won’t harm your child, but recent studies suggest that when children and adults are chronically sleep-deprived, the body is less able to fight disease. According to the 2003 National Survey of Children’s Health, more than 15 million children and teens don’t get adequate sleep.

Inadequate sleep not only leaves children more vulnerable to colds and infections, but may also impair cognitive function.

To help restless children settle in for a good night’s sleep, offer a warm bath within an hour of bedtime and a protein-rich snack such as cheese or turkey, and dim the lights. Avoid television and video games within two hours of bedtime because these activities rev children up rather than calming them.

Bundle Up
Moms have always urged kids to zip up coats and put on mittens, though many medical experts used to believe that there was no connection between getting chilled and catching a cold. Turns out mom was right.

In 2005, researchers at the Common Cold Centre of the University of Cardiff in Wales asked 90 volunteers to place their bare feet in a bucket of ice water for 20 minutes. Another 90 subjects kept their feet in an empty bucket with their shoes and socks on. Nearly 30 percent of the volunteers who were exposed to ice water developed cold symptoms within the next five days, though only 9 percent of the dry-footed subjects developed symptoms.

The theory is that chilling the body temporarily suppresses the immune system, making us more vulnerable to colds and infection. Let your kids play outside, but insist that they wear jackets, hats and mittens when the temperature drops, and rain boots during wet weather.

Get Moving
A study involving 550 adult subjects found that those who participated in moderate levels of exercise five or six days per week suffered 30 percent fewer respiratory illnesses than those with a more sedentary lifestyle. Although no such studies have been conducted with children, it seems reasonable to assume that an active lifestyle will benefit kids as well.

Encourage your child to go outside daily. Take the dog for a walk or visit the park. Join a recreational sports team, or take up swimming or rollerblading.

We can’t keep our kids in a bubble, as tempting as it may be. Instead, “strengthen the host, rather than avoid the invader,” suggests mom Sally Treadwell. Promote a healthful, active lifestyle for year-round health.

Julie Christensen is a former teacher and freelance writer who specializes in parenting, education and gardening.

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