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Issue Date: November 23, 2008
In this article:
Being physically active helps with homework
Forget feeding games
A "healthful" snack surprise
My parents were right!
A new reason to turn off the tv
A new good-food bible for kids
Teen smoking is a huge drag
Sibling danger zone

Marlo Thomas: Join the holiday rush -- to help
Donate to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Today's Topic: Health & Kids

Contributing Editor Ann Pleshette Murphy stays on top of the latest health news. Now, she shares her best findings.

With more than 20 years' experience as a mom and reporter on child and family issues, the health and well-being of all kids is my passion. As ParentSmart columnist for USA WEEKEND and parenting contributor to ABC's Good Morning America, I have to keep abreast of news and research about children and families. It's a practice that I developed during my 10 years as editor of Parents magazine.

I learned these intriguing, important and inspiring facts this year:

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Being physically active helps with homework

American Journal for Public Health

Does time spent hitting the court or field translate into fewer hours hitting the books? As pressure mounts nationally to increase standardized test scores, should schools cut back on physical education programs?

The answer is no, especially when it comes to girls. According to the American Journal of Public Health, a national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of more than 5,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade showed that girls who engaged in 70 to 300 minutes of physical education classes a week scored consistently higher than those who spent fewer than 35 minutes a week in PE. The findings confirm other research studies that demonstrate the benefits (both physical and emotional) of exercise.

So if your child's school is cutting back on PE or recess time, speak up to save it.

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Forget feeding games


"Here comes the airplane -- open up!" What parent hasn't resorted to that little trick for getting Baby to eat one more spoonful of food?

Even if the game seems like fun, pressuring a child to eat can have the opposite effect: He actually might eat less, according to a study published in "Pediatrics" magazine. Researchers in Britain, who studied 62 mothers and their children from birth to 2 years, found that 1-year-olds whose moms pressured them to eat weighed less at age 2 than did little ones whose parents backed off. The vicious cycle seems to be that a baby who doesn't seem to be eating enough may make Mom anxious to shovel more food his way, which only exacerbates his fussiness. It's better to follow your baby's lead as much as possible. And as soon as he can handle a spoon, give it to him.

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A "healthful" snack surprise


We know that greasy hamburgers, fries and doughnuts are not the staples of a healthful diet. But if you've been substituting granola bars, "health" drinks and other presumably nutritious choices, then you'll be surprised by a recent study. University of Calgary researchers found that, of more than 350 food products marketed to kids, 63% made health claims (think "contains essential nutrients" or "good source of calcium"), but almost 90% were of poor nutritional quality. Your best bet: Read the nutritional info on the back of the package, not the claims on the front.

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My parents were right!

Springfield News-Leader

When I was growing up, family dinners were sacrosanct. The TV was never on; I wasn't even allowed to answer the phone -- torture during my teen years. But my parents may have been onto something. University of Minnesota researchers surveyed more than 800 adolescents, first when they were around 13, and again around 17. They found that frequent family meals significantly lowered the girls' odds of engaging in risky behaviors like smoking and use of alcohol and marijuana. The benefits don't end there: Previous research shows that kids who eat with their families eat more healthfully and even get better grades. Most important, scheduling family meals gives everyone a chance to connect.

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A new reason to turn off the tv

Journal of Child Development

You may be able to read your e-mail or make dinner while the evening news plays in the background. But a recent study noted that it can "have a chronic disruptive impact" on toddlers' playtime. University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers found that although children glanced at the TV for only a few seconds at a time and for less than once each minute while they played with toys, play periods were shorter and less focused than with the TV off. So do your little ones a favor and let them play in peace.

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A new good-food bible for kids

Rodale Press

If you need help deciphering which nutritional choices are best for your children, check out the handy guide "Eat This, Not That! For Kids!," the kids' version of the best-selling adult book. It points out the healthier options found in fast-food and family restaurants, grocery store aisles, even your child's cafeteria. The book offers helpful meal suggestions, label- and menu-reading strategies and a listing of the 20 worst kids' foods in the country. In addition to that, most spreads in the book open up to two food options, one on the left page and one on the right, and it tells you point-blank to "Eat This, Not That." The choices often are surprising. For example, if you go to Dunkin' Donuts, encourage your child to order the ham, egg and cheese English muffin sandwich instead of the seemingly healthier banana walnut muffin. You'll save almost 200 calories and 11 grams of fat!

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Teen smoking is a huge drag

Journal of Family Practice

It's a given that smoking is dangerous. But I recently read an article in the "Journal of Family Practice" suggesting that teens are at greater risk for nicotine addiction than you might realize. According to Joseph R. DiFranza, M.D., at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, teenagers can get hooked from their first cigarette. "Very soon after that first cigarette," he writes, "adolescents can experience a loss of autonomy over tobacco, and recent research indicates that this loss of autonomy may play a key role in nicotine addiction." In other words, the first few cigarette puffs can alter their brain right away, making it even more difficult for them to resist addiction. Therefore, DiFranza says, it's important for teens to know that even trying "just one" can be a big risk.

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Sibling danger zone

American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology

Often, parents who want their children to be close in age focus on the potential benefits of the sibling bond ("They will be more likely to play together.") or the convenience ("We'll have all of our kids out of diapers sooner!"). But a study of the relationship between premature births and the interval between birth and subsequent conception gives parents reason to wait. According to the study, conceiving less than six months after birth increased by 48% a woman's chances of having a preterm delivery. For women who waited six to 12 months after birth, the risk dropped to 14%; after 12 months, the risk disappeared. Waiting at least six months before conceiving again gives Mom a chance to rebuild the nutrients she lost during pregnancy and nursing.

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The denial syndrome


Eva Longoria's character on "Desperate Housewives" isn't the only parent who refuses to admit her child is seriously overweight. Researchers at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found many real parents who also are in denial. Of about 2,000 adults polled, about 40% of those who described their 6- to 11-year-old child as "about the right weight" were wrong; their child was actually obese. And even though 25% of the children were obese, less than 10% of their parents said they were "very concerned" about the child's weight.

To find what your children should weigh for their age and height, search for "growth charts" on

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Join the holiday rush -- to help

Marlo Thomas on how a dollar can make a difference in a sick child's life.

Cover: Marlo Thomas lends a hand
With Marlo Thomas are Kameron Mooney, 4, of Bluffton, Ohio, undergoing treatment at St. Jude for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, cancer of the white blood cells; and Andrea Wilson, 4, of Drew, Miss., getting treatment at St. Jude for kidney cancer. Both are doing well.

Caring for nearly 5,100 acutely sick children a year and funding cutting-edge medical research to treat them costs St. Jude Children's Research Hospital an astounding $650 million a year. But the payoff has been even more remarkable: When actor and comedian Danny Thomas founded St. Jude in Memphis 46 years ago, only 4% of children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of cancer in children, survived. Today, the survival rate has soared to about 90%, in no small part because of the hospital's work.

This week, the hospital launches its annual Thanks and Giving campaign, which starts, aptly, this coming week, after Thanksgiving. We asked actress Marlo Thomas, Danny's daughter and St. Jude national outreach director, to tell us more about St. Jude's fundraising effort, which helps the hospital pursue its central mission: to save young lives.

What makes St. Jude hospital different from other pediatric cancer centers?
Everything is under one roof. That was a key part of my father's vision. We all eat in the same cafeteria -- patients, Nobel Laureates, families. Every child has a scientist and a doctor on his case. At other institutions, scientists would have little contact with patients.

Tell us about the Thanks and Giving campaign.
The motto is: "Give thanks for the healthy kids in your life, and give to those who are not." I tell families that when you're out shopping, looking forward to the holidays and spending time with loved ones, think about those families who are fighting for their kids' lives.

A lot of people are feeling financially strapped these days. Does that worry you?
Even in these bad economic times, everyone can afford to give a dollar. And 85 cents of every dollar goes directly to research and treatment. We are dependent on public funds because we have so few paying customers. The average hospital only has to get 8% of its budget from the public; we have to get 72%. Companies can cut back, but we're not going to say to any families, "We're can't take you because we can't raise the money."

How does Thanks and Giving work?
It starts the week of Thanksgiving and goes to New Year's. There are two ways you can help. You can make a donation at the cashier at any of our partner stores, or you can donate online. We have more than 50 of the top brands and retailers, from Kmart and Dick's Sporting Goods to Williams-Sonoma and Saks Fifth Avenue. This year, we hope to raise $100 million. So look for the green magnifying glass logo at retail outlets or go to and give whatever you can to help us find cures.
-- Ann Pleshette Murphy

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You've probably seen them at the checkout -- round green magnifying glasses like this one. Starting this week, when the cashier asks, "Would you like to donate a dollar to St. Jude?" say yes; 85 cents goes directly to help sick children.

You also can go online and donate at

Contributing Editor Ann Pleshette Murphy's column appears frequently in USA WEEKEND.
Cover photograph by George Lange for USA WEEKEND
Styling by Tina Latonero, RJ Bennett; Hair for Marlo Thomas by Frank Barron; Makeup for Marlo Thomas by Leslie Lopez, The Wall Group; Hair and Makeup for Ann Pleshette Murphy by Chris Newberg, RJ BENNNETT

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