By Alix Norman
Take away the sweets, and you’re in trouble, as most parents know. Kids are programmed to love anything sugary and fatty and, most of the time, they just don’t realise what it’s doing to them.
Especially in terms of weight: within the European Region, one in three 11-year-olds is overweight or obese, says the World Health Organisation. We’re allowing our children to get larger and larger all the time, and some of the worst offenders are the most southerly nations of Europe. That’s Malta, Spain, Italy, Greece and… yes, Cyprus. In fact, a recent Health Ministry report states that while one in six children on the island are considered obese, close to one in four were overweight, and a third hovered on the highest limit of permitted cholesterol levels for their age. But how on earth do you teach your kids to stop reaching for the Revels or snacking on a Snicker?
Luckily, there’s someone who can help. Someone who can encourage children to live healthier lifestyles, and make it all less of a chore and more of a game. A young lady who’s dedicated to helping children be the healthiest, happiest versions of themselves possible. And that’s Nota Syrimi, qualified nutritionist, expert in Exercise and Physical Activity for Children, and founder of Nutrihome – the first place on the island that aims to help children understand the need for health through a balance of diet and exercise.
“There are a lot of studies that show we have a big problem with obesity here in Cyprus,” says Nota, whose own research both at the University of Reading and at various institutions on the island has focused on nutrition, health and exercise. A lively and caring young woman, Nota opened Nutrihome over three years ago, and has seen it leap from strength to strength, encouraging children to understand the need for a healthy diet and offering both nutritional advice and exercise classes on a long-term basis.
“When we talk about overweight children, it’s a very different matter from adults,” she explains. “An extra five or six kilos in a grown-up may not be particularly noticeable or dangerous. But in a child, that’s a huge amount, and very evident. And as they get older, this tends to compound, and you end up with an obese adult.”
The problem, she says, is that with more and more children living a sedentary urban lifestyle with little chance for outdoor play, exercise often falls by the wayside. “This lack of outdoor exercise can really affect children in terms of their weight,” she continues. “Nowadays, especially if you live in a city, you go to dance or football classes after school. But a lot of parents tell me their kids don’t like sports. And it’s not like when we were growing up, riding our bikes and running around. Sometimes that’s just not safe…”
The answer, she suggests, is including the whole family in healthy activities, making time to go for a bike ride or a walk together. “Family plays a big role,” she explains, “and I often hear from the parents that it’s the grandparents stuffing the children with sweets that’s the problem.” But while statistics suggest that this may just be a passing of the blame (in all major studies, the one most influential factor in childhood weight gain is the prevalence of obesity in one or both of the parents) family and communication are clearly the key.
“Talking to your child and explaining to them that they have choices in terms of exercise – it’s not all football or ballet! – always helps,” she explains. “Doing something as a family unit, getting kids to understand that everyone will be involved in something that is part of a whole lifestyle.” Or, of course, they could go to Nutrihome, and take advantage of Nota’s expertise in a place where children are always made to feel extremely comfortable and happy.
“Sometimes I get a referral from a doctor, or often through word of mouth,” she says of the families who come to visit her. “We usually discuss things first over the phone, and then when they arrive, the kids will join in one of the age-appropriate exercise classes, so they can see how fun it is.” The process also involves measurements of fat and muscle content, and often a nutritional programme as well, with the emphasis on the kids themselves truly understanding the value of healthy eating. But it’s the exercise that really makes the difference, says Nota. “Exercise is paramount to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for growing children,” she says, “especially if they’re tending towards diabetes: exercise is the first thing that has to change. Diet alone can’t help.”
With an entire studio packed with a plethora of colourful props – tennis nets, exercise balls, hula hoops and the like – the emphasis at Nutrihome is on exercise as fun. “Most children come to me twice a week for an hour at a time,” Nota explains. “They work with me in small groups comprising either 5 to 7-year-olds or those aged 8 to 11. And it’s wonderful to see them enjoying themselves so much! They always seem to love being here, enjoying the ‘games’ and forming firm friendships. And they always refer to what we do as ‘fun’ and ‘play’ rather than exercise.”
And this, surely, is the way to approach what is clearly becoming a real problem in Cyprus: educating the children themselves, and teaching them the value of nutrition and exercise. “I’ve got a girl who’s 10 years old who has overcome a real problem with her weight,” Nota concludes, giving a direct example of how teaching kids to understand their own health is such a benefit:
“Recently, she was talking to me about whether the weight had been lost from fat or muscle or water, and I realised that she really understood and cared. Not just about losing weight, but about being healthy. And that’s the goal here, to help educate kids about their own choices. While they have fun, of course!”
For more information on Nutrihome, call Nota on 22261040, email [email protected] or visit the website www.nsnutrihome.com